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Special Feature: Miss America 2016 Betty Cantrell

My dad told me once, ‘if you love what you do, it never feels like work.  Every day, you go to do something you enjoy, and you just get paid for it!’

I’ve been interviewing and writing about Miss Nebraska contestants for three years now.  Many have said they are competing for a JOB.  You’re about to meet a young woman proving every single day that is EXACTLY what this honor is.

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Photo courtesy Matt Boyd Photography and the Miss America Organization

Betty Cantrell is Miss America 2016.  To anyone who thinks all beauty queens do is wave their hands and smile.. STEP BACK.

“A normal day for me is getting up super early, putting on a lot of makeup, making sure my hair looks nice, and doing a full day of events,” Betty told me earlier this month.  “Usually a full day is about 12 hours; I’m always ready to crash by the end of the day.”

Betty’s journey to Miss America started in 2013, when she entered a local pageant in her home state, hoping to become Miss Georgia.  Betty finished as 1st or 2nd runner-up three times before winning a local title, and went on to place 2nd runner up at the 2014 Miss Georgia Pageant.  Betty tried again just weeks later, becoming Miss Warner Robins 2015.  Representing her hometown, Betty was crowned Miss Georgia 2015, winning $15,000 in scholarship money and a ticket to compete at Miss America.

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Photo courtesy Matt Boyd Photography

“I decided to begin competing in pageants for the scholarship opportunities offered by the Miss America Organization and because I love to sing and I really enjoyed competing in talent competitions,” said Betty.  “I just really loved everything this organization stood for: Scholarship, Service, Style and Success. (Those are the four points of the crown, the 4 S’s.)”

Betty had less than three months to prepare for Miss America; she tells me she prepped the same as she did for Miss Georgia (just stressed out a little bit more.)  Immediately, she caught the attention of the Twitterverse that follows Miss America, and everyone following the chatter at home, by winning one of only 3 preliminary talent awards with her powerful vocal performance of ‘Tu? Tu? Piccolo iddio!’ from Madama Butterfly.

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Photo courtesy The Miss America Organization/Bruce V. Boyajian; CLICK HERE to watch Betty’s performance!

“I loved winning preliminary talent at Miss America,” said Betty.  “If I hadn’t won the competition, winning talent would have been enough for me.  I love to perform, so being validated on my talent on a national level was amazing.  I also made SOOO many friends at Miss America and I’m so grateful for those friendships because I know they will last forever.”

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The 2016 Miss America Pageant titleholders surprising Betty with a birthday treat; she celebrated her 21st birthday while she competed at Miss America. (Photo courtesy the Miss America Organization)

FINALS NIGHT.. with approximately 7-million people watching across the country, Miss Georgia Betty Cantrell was crowned Miss America 2016.  She is only the 2nd Georgia representative to win the title, taking home $52,000 in scholarship money.

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Photo courtesy The Miss America Organization/Bruce V. Boyajian

“I couldn’t believe that I had just won,” said Betty.  “I was so thankful to the judges for picking me and for seeing through my imperfections.  They saw that I’m the real deal and could be a good role model for young people everywhere.”

Those ‘imperfections’…. during her final moments before she won the title, Betty took on a complicated question on stage regarding ‘Deflategate’, and had a minor trip in her evening gown.

First, let’s take a step back.  How many times have you tripped in the office, at the mall, or anywhere else… we all do it!  Second, all of the Top 7 finalists at this year’s competition were put on the spot about some of the hottest topics and issues we face today.. and they had courage under fire in front of 7-MILLION people!

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Photo courtesy the Miss America Organization

Still, haters gonna hate.. and Betty (like many Miss Americas before her) faced almost immediate criticism that the judges made the wrong choice.  Despite an overwhelming, and sometimes hateful social and mainstream media storm, Betty IMMEDIATELY got to work, ready to make a difference as Miss America 2016.

 Literally, from New York to LA, Betty Cantrell set out to cover the country and impact as many people as possible.  She accepted countless interviews, she visited the New York Stock Exchange, she rubbed elbows with Hollywood celebrities, and always made time for the children that matter to her most, pediatric patients in Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals.

“I always love doing events with Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals,” Betty told me.  “CMNH is the official platform of the organization and I love kids, so anytime I get to work with them is just awesome.”

Then in December, just three months into her reign, Betty did something jaw-dropping..

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..she chopped off all the long, gorgeous hair so many associate with beauty queens.  With Miss America.  Betty did it to donate to pediatric cancer patients who needed it, and with that, inspired countless teens and women after her to follow her lead.

Betty Cantrell has advocated for farmers and 4H.  She’s taken part in the USO tour, singing for men and women around the world serving our country.  She’s performed for school after school after school, dazzling children everywhere with her INCREDIBLE rendition of ‘Let It Go’.

And in a time where people seem to increasingly have a negative connotation of pageants, Betty Cantrell has brought the Miss America brand back into the forefront.  She’s spoken and performed in front of the Georgia legislature.  She’s drawn 65,000 followers on Twitter.  She’s presented and/or performed at some of the country’s biggest events and awards shows, making friends with some of America’s most popular performers.

Red carpet photo courtesy Getty Images

“My favorite appearances so far have been the CMA’s and the ACM awards shows,” said Betty, who was also featured in People Magazine’s Best Dressed list after the events.  “I’m an aspiring country singer, so hanging out with all of the country artists I look up to is always pretty thrilling.”

Every time someone sees Miss America at a respected event, I’d argue that’s one more person who might think ‘hmm, what’s this Miss America thing all about?’ and maybe find out a little more about the thousands of young women competing, earning thousands in scholarships, and making a difference in their communities.  Betty, for example, partnered early on with Team FNV to promote her platform ‘Healthy Children, Strong America.’  Joining her mission.. actresses Jessica Alba and Kristen Bell, NBA star Stephen Curry and singer Nick Jonas.

“I have now partnered with the American Farm Bureau to help spread the word about kids eating healthy, exercising, and learning about where their food comes from!” said Betty.

The one thing NOT mentioned in my interview with Betty… a break.  Because she rarely gets one.  As Nebraska prepares to crown a new titleholder in just weeks, Miss America 2016 is preparing to hand over her crown, and resume life as simply, Betty Cantrell.

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“I am looking forward to having a normal life again!” said Betty.  “My plan is to move to Nashville and work on my country singing career.”  (Click here to follow Betty’s new professional account on Twitter!)

Maybe you’ve watched Miss America your whole life.  Maybe you’ve tried to AVOID Miss America your whole life.. not wanting to feed into a culture that subjects women to swimsuits, high heels and objectification.

If you’re the latter, Betty Cantrell has a message for you.

“This is a fun and philanthropic way to be a role model and earn scholarships to further your education,” said Betty.  (Quick recap: Betty, a Mercer University student, has made more than $67,000 in scholarships competing in the Miss America Organization.)  “Another reason to compete is for the friendships you make that will last a lifetime.  I was skeptical at first, too, but when I really learned what the organization is all about, I was so happy I chose to be involved.”

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To the women hoping to become Miss Nebraska.. dreaming of becoming the woman Betty crowns Miss America in just three short months, a reminder.

“My number one piece of advice to every contestant in every state is just to be yourself,” said Betty.  “Show those judges what makes you special and unique.  Be confidently and unapologetically, you!”

And Miss America 2016 has no apologies.  She’s a farm girl, a Georgia peach, perfectly imperfect, a Mercer Bear, a country star-in-the-making, a daughter, granddaughter, and friend.  She is Baciliky Andris ‘Betty’ Cantrell, a girl given a name meaning’royalty’.. a woman showing her country what being a queen is all about.

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“I want people to remember me as the different Miss America,” said Betty.  “The Miss America who didn’t care what the haters had to say.  The one who chopped off her hair and donated it.  The one who grew up on a farm and became Miss America.  I just want people to remember me as a Miss America that changed the stigma of what Miss America is and should be, forever.”

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My sincere thanks to Miss America 2016 Betty Cantrell for taking the time for our interview, and to  the Miss America Organization’s Chelsea Mineur for facilitating this!

To learn more about Miss America 2016 Betty Cantrell, click each link to follow

on Twitter, on Facebook, on Instagram.  You can also CLICK HERE to visit the Miss America Organization Facebook page for a full list of resources and information about Betty and the program.  The 2017 Miss America Pageant takes place September 11 on ABC!

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CLICK HERE to meet the 2016 Miss Nebraska Pageant contestants!

The 2016 Miss Nebraska Scholarship Pageant takes place June 8-11 in North Platte, Nebraska.  Learn more on THEIR WEBSITE, FACEBOOK PAGE, or follow ON TWITTER and ON INSTAGRAM.

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PREVIOUS.. Miss Harvest Moon Festival’s Outstanding Teen 2016 Sheridan Blanco!

NEXT.. Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen 2015 Steffany Lien!

To read more about this year’s contestants, or the Miss Nebraska/Miss Nebraska’s OT classes of 2015 & 2014, click the THERE SHE IS link at the top of the page!

We Are Nebraska

Who is Miss Nebraska?

I’m not just asking who is the current Miss Nebraska, but who is this person who travels the state wearing a crown and sash?  Who is the woman who goes on TV every year and represents all of us at Miss America?  Is there even one all encompassing definition of this person we call Miss Nebraska?

Click here and see the incredible compilation of Miss Nebraskas through the years.

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Miss Nebraska 1962 Mary Lee Jepsen was the first to crack the Top 10 at Miss America, twirling three fire batons; she went on to earn four college degrees, two of them Masters’ and one of them a Post-Masters, focusing on psychology and family counseling.

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Miss Nebraska 2002 Krista Knicely survived a horrific attack and assault before she was crowned; she used her time as Miss Douglas County and then Miss Nebraska to bravely share her story and inspire other victims of sexual assault attempts or attacks across the country.

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Miss Nebraska 2006 Molly McGrath traveled 30,000 across the state talking about financial literacy and economic education, has worked with both the Federal Reserve and in the private sector on multi-million dollar projects.

Such different stories during and after their time as Miss Nebraska, yet they all share a common bond, along with this young woman.

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MISS NEBRASKA 2014 MEGAN SWANSON

(Photo courtesy Jenn Cady Photography)

“I’m a tall girl with an even bigger heart,” Megan told me recently.  “The job of Miss Nebraska is so much more than what you look like, but rather is about the utterance of your heart by the words you speak and the message you believe in.”

THIS Miss Nebraska isn’t kidding about being tall, she’s 6 feet without heels.  That kind of altitude is common place in the Swanson household, but just short of legendary everywhere else.

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Megan eye to eye with her family.. and *slightly* taller than her pageant sister, Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen 2014 Morgan Holen

Megan wants people to remember more than that; she wants to be seen as the best possible candidate for serving her state.  That has been her intention from the beginning; click here to read my first interview with Megan during her time as Miss Douglas County.

“Nebraska is my home, my love, and my heart,” said Megan.  “It’s land, it’s people, it’s message, it’s feel.  While passionate about the nation, I believe this year I was supposed to make a visible impact on the state of Nebraska, and I believe I did so.  This year as Miss Nebraska, I put over 25,000 miles on my Miss Nebraska car, spoke to over 10,000 students alone, and really believe our residents would associate my name and platform in about 2 seconds.  THAT was what my goal was: for people to think Megan Swanson, Miss Nebraska 2014, and think: ‘Oh, yeah!  She’s genuine, she cares about people in a real way (not for show, not because she has to), and she’s a fitness/health/wellness buff.  Total Body Wellness: Spirit, Soul, and Body is her platform, AND she’s really tall!”

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“I’ve spent many a surprising time with tears slowly falling down my face at the testimonies from this year,” said Megan.  “You see, to me.. it was never about ‘my message’, despite being 328479384% passionate about it.  It’s about the people, your audience.  Why go into a school, auditorium, arena, business luncheon, or conference and speak about the same topic over and over that has no way of relating to people?  I made it my mission to write the framework and research the heck out of all facets of my program, and then make sure I became an expert in each area.”

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Megan has also shared each facet of her program on social media.  Using Miss Nebraska 2014 Facebook page (now nearing 1,350 followers), and Instagram (with more than 4,500 followers) Megan posts scripture, diet and workout tips and simply inspiring thoughts, along with a steady stream of photos showcasing her ‘days in the life’ of Miss Nebraska.

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‘{BE ENCOURAGED!} I have not stopped thanking God for you. I pray for you constantly, asking God, the glorious Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to give you spiritual wisdom and insight so that you might grow in your knowledge of God. I pray that your hearts will be flooded with light so that you can understand the confident hope he has given to those he called—his holy people who are his rich and glorious inheritance. I also pray that you will understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him. This is the same mighty power that raised Christ from the dead and seated him in the place of honor at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms. Now he is far above any ruler or authority or power or leader or anything else—not only in this world but also in the world to come. God has put all things under the authority of Christ and has made him head over all things for the benefit of the church. And the church is his body; it is made full and complete by Christ, who fills all things everywhere with himself. (Ephesians 1:16-23 NLT)’

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‘Mar 7, 2014 | {4 hours of sleep} + [5 games (hours) of reffereeing 5th grade boys bball at 8:30am] + {1 small nap} + [my amazing cousins engagement party] = In Bed By 10:45pm and Miss Night Owl is now Miss Sleepy Nebraska 2014.’

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‘Day 9 is all about Abs, Abs, Abs!!! And are made in the kitchen folks! Your hormones and adrenal glands also have a lot to do with storage of fat around your middle section- here are a few quick bullet points to help! As always, if you have questions feel free to DM me!’

Megan has also secured sponsorships during her year as Miss Nebraska with private companies including Deep South Pout clothing, Envy Tans By Tammy, Max Muscle, Meal Solutions, and Smart Girl Style.  More so, she’s expanded and further solidified Miss Nebraska’s reach; in politics, visiting the state legislature, meeting Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts, and singing the national anthem before a major Republican party event this spring.

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Megan has also appeared on television news across the state, participated in radio interviews, and has taken part in numerous fundraisers and events across the state, often with hundreds or thousands in attendance.  She’ll perform for one of her biggest crowds yet in just weeks, singing the national anthem for 30,000+ at the College World Series.  Click here to listen to her audition!

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CLICK HERE TO SEE KETV’S STORY WITH MEGAN, SEPTEMBER 2014

CLICK HERE TO READ MY FEATURE ON MEGAN & MISS IOWA ALY OLSON BEFORE MISS AMERICA

CLICK HERE TO READ ONE OF MEGAN’S FIRST INTERVIEWS, WITH KETV, AFTER WINNING MISS NEBRASKA

Still, Megan wanted more.  She told me several times leading up to Miss America she intended to win; her experience was no doubt memorable, but not all positive. An unflattering camera angle of Megan, seated behind ABC’s Miss America host, made national headlines.  Megan’s post on Facebook shortly after, ‘liked’ more than 400 times, spoke VOLUMES about her character and confidence.

‘Despite all the explosion of media recently- there are apparently pictures of me in a swimsuit even I didn’t even know existed! Hilariously, these show clearly more than the one accidental second caught on national television! Haha. To everyone- I have laughed about this and moved on! I am a strong woman of character, and confident in who I truly am and where I am going! I guess I am also quite definitely a true basketball player at heart and forgot for a second that I wasn’t on the bench ready for coach to tell me to get in the game! (Lesson learned…) obviously- this In no way means I am anything less than a person of extremely high moral standards. If you know me, you know that. Here’s to the future aiming to be the best Miss Nebraska yet! God can turn any situation for good, and hey- I’m excited to see how even this ends up being an outlet for my TRUE message: helping people to love, accept, grow, and transform themselves through the eyes of wellness education from the inside out! Spirit, Soul, and Body! I have even MORE of a reason now to advocate for my cause! #missnebraska#missnebraska14 #lifestyleandfitness #fitness #laugh#teammegan #tbw #wellness #missne

“I choose to BE overcome by a circumstance, or take it by the horns and OWN it, overcome IT myself,” Megan told me.  She remains focused on her positive take-aways from Miss America.

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“It was so amazing to get to sing on the Miss America stage, and it’s a time I’ll never forget,” said Megan.  “I am so blessed to have a network of 52 sisters that I bonded with at Miss America and still talk to literally every, single day.  We’re go-getters, we don’t take no for an answer, and we work for every dream in our hearts.  Watch out, world!  In ten years, we will have conquered wherever we land.  The CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies, beautiful, intelligent, confident women broadcasting on television or ESPN, future famous musicians, teachers, educators, Super-Moms, and leaders alike, will be women who competed.”

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How do you measure a year? How do you define Miss Nebraska?

“This job has abundantly transformed my life for the better this year, and most importantly, grown ME as a young woman,” said Megan.  “I’m honored that every, single day, I woke up with the responsibility of being a role model for people of every age, gender, background, status, and walk of life and I don’t take it lightly.  It’s exactly that: a responsibility.  It’s my duty and my job.”

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Megan Swanson’s chapter in the History of Miss Nebraska will end this Saturday night, as she passes her crown on to a woman who was in her place one year ago.  She will return to Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, to pursue her Commercial Voice Major.  Megan will continue to write and produce music, and pursue her family ministry through their church and via their new website (click here to check out We Are Swanson).

“Knowing who we are is the foundation of everything we become,” said Megan.  “I believe any role model must first know who they are and where they’re going, or they can’t lead!  I think that’s what makes me different.  My laser focus in on not just speaking for 30 minutes or an hour, but leaving a lasting impact, creating new leaders, helping people change their path and start walking towards the person they were created to be; first recognizing what makes them special, and then operating in those gifts.”

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(Photo courtesy Midwest Photo Pro)

  “When I go to schools, I get to look students in the eyes and genuinely convince them that all things are possible.  All future hopes and wishes are possible,” said Megan.  “Through hard work, trust, a stubborn perseverance and faith, God blossomed this caterpillar into a beautiful, young lady butterfly.  Confident. Strong. Firm in her goals and identity and ready to take on the world.  What’s holding you back?  What excuse are you taking as truth?  Run. Run towards your dream every day.  Because even if you’re at 0, and your goal is at 100, 1 + 1+ 1 eventually = 100.”

Follow Miss Nebraska 2014 Megan Swanson

on Facebook, on Twitter, and on Instagram

Click here to read a special profile on Megan and ‘predictions’ for the Class of 2015 from the nationally popular Pageant Junkies!

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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 Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen 2014 Morgan Holen

THANK YOU, SINCERELY, FOR FOLLOWING THIS YEAR’S SERIES ON THE 2015 MISS NEBRASKA AND MISS NEBRASKA’S OUTSTANDING TEEN CONTESTANTS!

GOOD LUCK, LADIES!!!

Click here for my recap of the 2015 Miss Nebraska & Miss Nebraska’s Outstanding Teen Pageant

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