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Special Feature: Miss America 2015 Kira Kazantsev

FACT: You are more likely to have a son play in the Super Bowl than you are to have a daughter compete for Miss America.

This weekend, as people all over the US watch the biggest game of the year, dozens of women from across Nebraska are gathering in North Platte, hoping this is the first step in their journey to Atlantic City and the iconic crown.

Not so long ago, a New York college student was doing her own preparation.. planning, hard work and drive that ultimately catapulted her into the national spotlight and cemented her place in the storied history of the Miss America Program.

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Miss America 2015 Kira Kazantsev

“I will always be incredibly proud to be associated with the Miss America title,” Kira told me recently.  “Only about 90 women can even say that! It has enriched my life more than I can convey, not to mention the personal growth, relationships, and experiences I have had ever since.”

Kira grew up in California and showed early on she was a talented, charismatic leader.  She held two state pageant titles by 16 years old, she was Student Body President of her high school, and a member of the Varsity Cheerleading Squad.  Kira moved to New York after high school to triple major in political science, global studies and geography.  At Hofstra University, Kira maintained a 3.6 GPA, she studied in Barcelona and she held multiple internships in political consultancy in Washington DC.  Somewhere, she found time to compete for the title of Miss New York, winning on her second try in 2014.

“The thing about being Miss New York is that it’s unlike any other state, especially if you’ve spent any time living in the city,” said Kira.  “You are fighting to maintain relevance in a place that has so much other stuff going on, you can easily slip into the shadows. You are also being exposed to high profile events, people and opportunities constantly which is great preparation for Miss America. In New York our pageant culture is very unique. The girl is very much in charge of her own preparation. I chose every piece of my wardrobe, I worked hard to get sponsors that I wanted, and I took the subway to the Bronx and Brooklyn for appearances that I scheduled myself. We have an incredible board and support team, but Miss New York herself leads the charge. It is tough and requires grit but that’s a recipe for one heck of a Miss America contestant.”

Proof: Kira made history in September of 2014, becoming the 3rd straight Miss New York to be crowned Miss America.

“I remember a blur of screaming and lights and turning around to see all of my Miss America sisters smiling and clapping,” said Kira.”

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A dream come true for countless little girls and young women across America, one that was quickly tainted by a small group trying to muddy Kira’s reputation.  They criticized her talent, a song-and-Solo-cup routine mirroring Anna Kendrick’s viral video.  They questioned her character regarding her participation in sorority activities.  Here was a woman who speaks three languages, was an honors student with three majors, an elite golfer, and she just did the impossible by becoming the 3rd consecutive contestant from one state to win that national title.. and she was being virtually assaulted by critics within days of her groundbreaking success.

“People focus on the negatives because 1: It makes them feel better about themselves and 2: The higher you rise, the more people will want to tear you down, because that is just the way many people are,” said Kira.  “I learned that lesson very early on as Miss America.  It taught me who my true friends were and who was really there for me.  I don’t focus on the negative.  If I did, I would still be sitting and responding to the millions of nasty tweets and comments I’ve gotten over the last few years.  Instead, I focus on the positive, the amazing things I’ve been able to accomplish, and the goals I continue to aspire to.”

Kira won me over through her reign as Miss America… starting with this:

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…a photo shoot with her cup.  She stood tall in the face of all the haters and OWNED it.  Something about this photo made me smile and think ‘you go, girl!’

‘Miss America isn’t a talent show.  Talent is meant to show you can entertain, you can connect with people.  That is the job of Miss America.’

It was the first of MANY photos of Kira, taking the world by storm.

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Presenting at the Academy of Country Music Awards

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Red Carpet at the Billboard Music Awards

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Presenting at the American Music Awards

Kira returned the Miss America brand to the national spotlight, appearing at and/or presenting at numerous awards shows (and often featured in the Best Dressed section after!)  She was the first Miss America in 43 years to visit troops overseas with the USO.

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And Kira shared her spotlight with her biggest.. yet smallest fans, as the National Goodwill Ambassador for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals.

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‘Remember when you are fundraising, there are tiny human beings on the other end who benefit from that.  No matter what challenges we face there are these little people who rely so much on us.’

She also embarked on a personal crusade against domestic violence, a campaign she dubbed ‘Put The Nail In It’.  She partnered with Safe Horizon, the nation’s leading victim assistance organization, and started a social media revolution.

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Kira painted her left ring fingernail purple, the color of the anti-domestic violence movement, and encouraged her half-million social media followers to do the same and unite together, as one collective voice, that we will support survivors and stop violence.  Music stars, professional athletes, reality TV stars, and countless others across America proudly painted and posted.

“No one can prepare themselves for suddenly being the face of a social media movement!” said Kira.  “But it was my greatest honor to be part of the creation of the ‘Put The Nail In It’ campaign.  It continues to garner huge impressions on social media while spreading awareness for the cause.  I couldn’t be more proud of it!”

By September of 2015, Kira Kazantsev was both sad to pass on her crown to new Miss America Betty Cantrell (click here to read more!) yet ready to begin a new adventure on her own.

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Photo courtesy People

 

“It was really hard for me to let go of a role I loved so much,” Kira told me.  “At the same time, I was ecstatic to take everything I’d learned and venture out into the world as just Kira.”

Kira has since expanded upon the connections she made and experiences she had as Miss America.  She’s hosted multiple events from the red carpet to the the non-profit world, she has performed and spoken at high profile venues across the country, and she’s played in numerous charity golf tournaments including the BMW Pro Am, and the Tiger Jam for the Tiger Woods Foundation.  She is now based in Los Angeles, using her extraordinary social media knowledge and experience as the Director of Community Engagement for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, the same organization she devoted so much of her life to as Miss America.

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Named one of the Most Beautiful Women In Golf by People Magazine & Golf.com

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Hosting Red Carpet coverage for the American Music Awards

“I’ve definitely taken time to travel and do things for me, but sometimes my schedule these days feels just as busy if not busier than my time as Miss America and I love that!” said Kira.  “I find that I’ve grown accustomed to that pace and If I’m not constantly doing something then I just feel a little off.  I try to balance as much as I can but there’s nothing better than the thrill of accomplishment.”

And through that balance, Kira continues to be a role model for women of all ages and backgrounds.  Through her social media and blog (click here for more!), Kira continues to advocate for health and fitness, chronicling how she faces the same challenges so many working women do regarding fast food and finding time to work out.

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“It is always a struggle,” Kira told me.  “I just remind myself that people battle disease, hunger, homelessness and far bigger problems than I could ever imagine every day, so I think I can find the will to make healthier eating choices and to get myself to the gym.  Now, I’m not always on top of it, but I do my best and that’s all anyone can do.  Life is full of choices and if we make the choice to take care of our bodies then somehow, someway, we find the time and we get it done.  It is all about perspective.”

Kira is sharing that insight with dozens of Nebraska women this weekend at Crowns and Gowns 2017 in North Platte as a featured guest.  She often thinks back on her own pageant journey, both her successes and her regrets.

“A million, but such is life and there is nothing I can do about them now,” said Kira.  “I try and work on this, but instinctually after every appearance, speech, and interaction, I turn it over in my head a million times.  Self doubt is my constant companion.  However, I know that I am being my best possible self and putting my best foot forward, always, and I am proud of everything I have accomplished and continue to pursue.”

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That is the self evaluation, the search within one’s self, that Kira hopes young women learn from her story.  To speak out on what you believe in.  To define this competition anyway you like and share your talents with the world.  To set larger than life goals whether you are a local titleholder, or Miss America.

“Miss America is evolving and the ones who can keep up with those changes and be cutting edge in their definition of titleholders will remain at the forefront,” said Kira.

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And to all of the young women competing for Miss Nebraska this year, dreaming of the day they could follow in Kira Kazantsev’s footsteps, this advocate, speaker, host and former Miss America has a message.

“Please just be YOU!” she said.  “Be genuine, real and off the cuff but always be prepared.  Do your research and work ahead of time and READY for a JOB.  This is more than a pageant, it’s an opportunity that can change your life forever and bring you incredible experiences.  At the same time, if it doesn’t work out, no big deal! We all have a plan and maybe being Miss Blah Blah isn’t part of yours and that’s ok.  Miss America is A dream, not THE dream.  There should be other things in your life that you are aspiring to like internships, colleges, charity work, and larger than life dreams.  You’ve got this, and only YOU can make it happen.”

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Photo courtesy Kristy Belcher Photography

‘As a  titleholder, you have the power to have a positive impact on somebody’s life.  That’s why we do this, it’s not for the crown, it’s for these kids.  It’s not about me, it’s about the title and what it makes people feel.  Hold on to who you are and be confident in the person you want to be.’

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Kira Kazantsev is available for public appearances and events.  For booking information and more about Kira, CLICK HERE to visit her website.  You can also follow Kira on social media: CLICK HERE to follow her on Twitter, HERE to follow on Facebook, HERE to follow on Instagram.

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The Miss Nebraska Pageant takes place June 7-10 in North Platte, Nebraska.

CLICK HERE for more details, HERE to follow on Twitter, HERE to follow on Facebook

The Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen Pageant takes place April 21-22 in Omaha, Nebraska.

CLICK HERE for more details, HERE to follow on Twitter, HERE to follow on Facebook

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PREVIOUS.. Brilliance (2017 Series Preview)

NEXT.. Miss Alliance’s Outstanding Teen 2017 Sydny Ridgeway!

To read more about this year’s contestants, or the Miss Nebraska/Miss Nebraska’s OT classes of 2014-2016 click the THERE SHE IS link at the top of the page!

Miracle Worker

You advocate for something because you believe in it.  You put your face and name behind a cause to share a compelling argument for why you are so passionate about that effort.  It takes courage to speak out (especially from a personal place); it takes time and dedication; it takes a leader who can command attention and compel others to make a difference.

This is one of the reasons I advocate for the Miss America Organization.. because no matter what you think of beauty pageants, or women competing for crowns, when that ONE DAY of competition is over, they are out in their communities and states 364 OTHER days of the year trying to do all of the things I just mentioned, in most cases, serving others.

This young woman will continue to promote her platform after her pageant days are over; she wants her cause to become her career.

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MISS DOUGLAS COUNTY 2015 ALYSSA HOWELL

(Photo courtesy Jenn Cady Photography)

“I will be a junior at Creighton University, studying Elementary Education, with the career ambition of becoming a child life specialist in a Children’s Miracle Network Hospital,” Alyssa told me recently.  “Truly, Children’s Miracle Network is my passion, and my platform, ‘Making Miracles Happen’, stands to improve the lives of children in hospitals all over Nebraska.”

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Several of this year’s Miss Nebraska contestants, including Alyssa and Miss Nebraska 2014 Megan Swanson, delivered gift bags to Children’s Hospital & Medical Center Rainbow House pediatric patients and their families for Miss America Serves day.

Children’s Miracle Network is also Miss America’s community partner, the organization which titleholders all over the country must raise money for in order to compete at the local and state level.  Money raised benefits hospitals like Omaha’s Children’s Hospital and Medical Center.  Many of this year’s Miss Nebraska contestants have spent time volunteering at Children’s; Alyssa visits on a consistent basis, inspired by her cousin and former CMN patient, Shayna.

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“Eight years ago my family (after a streak of 12 boy cousins) was finally blessed with a girl!  However, Shayna was sick with a frightening virus that left her sick and in the hospital for days after her birth,” said Alyssa.  “18 months later, she tested positive for profound hearing loss.  My family was devastated, however, with the help of St. Louis Children’s Hospital (a CMN facility), Shayna was able to receive cochlear implants that allow her to hear as a normal child.”

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Alyssa witnessed part of that journey in person, staying with Shayna and her family for two months while Shayna attended the Central Institute for the Deaf.  Alyssa had already been involved with CMN fundraisers as a young girl, at her sister Devin Howell’s side during her time as Miss River City 2008, Miss Douglas County 2009 and Miss Omaha 2010.

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When Alyssa was crowned Miss Eastern Nebraska 2014, (click here to see read my interview with her last Spring!) she wanted to take her passion for CMN hospitals and the children they serve to another level.  Alyssa designed and implemented something she calls the Miracle Bags Program.

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“I go to sororities [including her own, Pi Beta Phi], business groups, girl scouts and schools and collect donation items.  Each bag [I create] contains a blanket, coloring book, crayons, Play-Doh, and a handwritten card,” said Alyssa.  “I then deliver these bags to the patients at Omaha Children’s, and let me tell you, nothing makes a sick child light up like a princess with a bag of goodies!”

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To Alyssa, the Miss America Organization presented opportunities for both volunteering and for her own personal growth.  It’s a stage for this pianist (and piano teacher) to play for a crowd; it’s a path to scholarships for this college student; it’s a platform for her to share Shayna’s story and encourage others to help pediatric hospital patients.

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“I truly believe that EVERY woman can gain so many incredible things from this organization, and Miss Nebraska stands to represent every woman in the state regardless of career, beliefs, appearance or education,” said Alyssa.  “As the All-American daughter of a former Marine and the 1981 Miss Iowa Dairy Princess, my upbringing led me to big dreams, big accomplishments and making big differences in the lives of everyone I meet.”

Alyssa Howell isn’t just an advocate for Miss America or for Children’s Miracle Network, she shows what strong, smart, talented women can accomplish when inspired by something as powerful as a little girl’s smile.  Just a guess, but I’m betting the feeling is mutual, and that Shayna’s grin will light up the entire North Platte High Auditorium in just three weeks.. as her princess, Miss Douglas County, competes to become the next Miss Nebraska.

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(Photo courtesy Studio FBJ)

To find out more about Miss Douglas County 2015 Alyssa Howell’s Miracle Bags Program, and to contact her for appearances and events, email alyssahowellva@gmail.com or click here to visit her Facebook page.

For more information on the Miss Omaha/Douglas County Pageant, click here to visit their website, here to visit them on Facebook, and here to follow on Twitter.

For information on becoming a future contestant, contact Executive Director Marianne Grubaugh at 402-330-8033 or by email at missomahapageant@yahoo.com.

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The Miss Nebraska Pageant will take place June 3-6, 2015 in North Platte.  Click here to visit the organization’s website, to visit the pageant on Facebook, to follow the pageant on Twitter, and to follow the pageant on Instagram.

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PREVIOUS.. Miss Heartland 2015 Steffani Jiroux

NEXT.. Miss State Fair 2015 Marie Allison

To read more about the Miss Nebraska Class of 2014, click on the ‘There She Is’ link at the top of the page.