This past Sat., March 2, marked the 73rd anniversary of the Miss Sonoma County Competition, the longest continuously running program of the Miss America organization in the state of California. Among the seven candidates in the Miss Sonoma County program, three were residents of Rohnert Park. In addition, two of the nine contestants in the Miss Sonoma County Outstanding Teen competition, which was held the same evening, also call Rohnert Park their hometown. After an evening of competition in physical fitness, talent, and interview questions, local Rohnert Park resident Rhiannon Jones won the title of Miss Sonoma County and Santa Rosa resident Emma Chen won Miss Sonoma County’s Outstanding Teen for 2019.
“The Miss America Organization is the largest scholarship organization for young women in the world,” says Cathy Slack, Executive Director for the Miss Sonoma County Outstanding Teen program and board member of the Miss Sonoma County Scholarship Organization who has been involved in the program for 14 years. “We started the Sonoma County Outstanding Teen Program eight years ago but it has been part of the Miss America organization for approximately 20 years.”
While the competition is steeped in tradition, there nevertheless have been changes over the decades, most notably just this past year. Gwen Adkins, Miss California Field Director who oversees nine northern counties, and has been involved in the organization since 1958 and was recognized at the 2009 Miss America Pageant for her fifty years of service at that time, has seen many of the changes first hand.
“We don’t call them pageants anymore, we call them competitions,” says Adkins. “There have been a lot of changes in the Miss America rules this past year. They got rid of the swimsuit portion and they changed a lot of terminology. We don’t call them contestants anymore we call them candidates.”
“That just happened with the big change in leadership at the Miss America level,” says Slack. “Now it’s called Miss America 2.0!”
Originally when the competition first started in the county in 1947, it was run by the 20/30 Club of Santa Rosa. They were held in the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building. The competition then moved to the Luther Burbank Center in the mid-1980s. Since the mid-1990s however, it has been held at the Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park.
“The 20/30 Club ran the program until 1969, when they decided they didn’t want to do it anymore,” says Adkins. “By that time I had been involved with them for at least ten years or more. I had brought in some other people to help me and we all formed a pageant organization and association and we carried it on from then until now. There have been changes along the way of course but I was director for 20 more years and then I joined the Miss California state staff in 1985 and have been on the state staff ever since.”
The teen program is for young women ages 13 to 17 and the Miss Sonoma County program is for 18 to 25 year old women. In addition, the organization started a non-competitive Miss Sonoma County princess program, which is a mentoring program for girls ages five through twelve. The girls are mentored by the older candidates, participate in a “princess boot camp” and are allowed to be on stage on competition night. This year there were eleven princesses participating.
The young women are scored on a variety of factors. For the outstanding teen program, the candidates are scored 35 percent on talent, 15 percent on a fitness routine, 25 percent on a private interview held prior to the evening competition, and 25 percent on the evening wear and on-stage questions portion.
“The young ladies have been rehearsing and getting coaching from us for two months now, every Sunday for five to seven hours,” says Slack. “It’s an all volunteer program. We work on interview practice, their talent, how to be on a stage and have stage presence and so on. We do a lot of drilling on interview
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andon stage question practice.
While it’s one of the lowest percentages of what they’re scored on, the young ladies are always so frightened of that because you have to think on your feet and you don’t know what you’re going to be asked and you have to give an intelligent answer.”
For the Miss Sonoma County program, 25 percent of the score comes from the private interview, 40 percent from talent, 15 percent from the onstage interview – no longer just a questions but an extension of the interview asked by one of the judges, and 20 percent comes from the evening wear and social impact statement portion.
“The social impact statement is a ten second speech about their platform cause,” says Slack. “The social impact statement is new this year, but the candidates having a platform is not. For many years the contestants have had a platform cause that is something in the community or a cause that’s near or dear to them – something they’ve worked on, means something to them, or something that interests them. Some of the causes may be something they have volunteered for or what has affected their family, school or community. When the title holders are out in the community we allow them to use the platform of being a title holder to advance awareness and work in their cause.”
The platform of 2019 Miss Sonoma County Rhiannon Jones is sexual assault awareness, reporting and recovery. For 2019 Miss Sonoma County’s Outstanding Teen, Emma Chen, her platform involves introducing young women to STEAM (the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math).
Every year the competition has a new panel of judges who generally are representative from local government, business, education and former candidates. This year the judges included Carlos Chavez, President of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Sonoma County; David McCuan, Professor and Department Chair of Sonoma State University’s Political Science Department; Linda Smith, former Miss Sonoma County from 1973; Neysa Hinton, Mayor of Sebastopol; Tawny Tesconi, Executive Director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau; and Tom Schwedhelm, Mayor of Santa Rosa. Other notable guests at the pageant included Marilyn Hoppel, formerly Miller, who was crowned Miss Santa Rosa (which later changed to Miss Sonoma County) in 1948, Miss California 2018, MacKenzie Freed, and of course Miss Sonoma County’s Outstanding Teen 2018, Pinkeo Phongsa and Miss Sonoma County 2018 Tyler-Avery Marie-Moana Lewis, both from Rohnert Park.
Chen and Jones, the winners of both competitions, will go on to compete in the Miss California competition held in Fresno at the end of June and will make over 100 appearances over the course of the year. The young women will attend city council and county board supervisor meetings, participate in parades and fundraisers, be present at ribbon cuttings and other county events.
“It’s really inspiring,” says Slack. “All of us on the committee, we get involved because we see these young ladies do great things in their lives and in the community. It’s rewarding for us to have helped them with their school, because at the end of the day we’re a scholarship organization. This year we will award $8,950 in total scholarships and all of this comes from donations we get from the community.”