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Local contestants say TV pageants bear little resemblance to reality

| Friday, Nov. 30, 2012, 11:59 p.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Alexandra Pacinda, 17, of Cranberry Township, a contestant in the Miss Pennsylvania USA pageant stands on the runway on Friday afternoon. The competition is being held this weekend at the Hyatt Regency Pittsburgh International Airport Hotel. Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Valerie Gatto of West View, 23, a contestant in the Miss Pennsylvania USA pageant stands on the runway on Friday afternoon. The competition is being held this weekend at the Hyatt Regency Pittsburgh International Airport Hotel. Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Tierra Nichelle Jackson, 17, of Aliquippa, a contestant in the Miss Pennsylvania USA pageant, which is being held this weekend at the Hyatt Regency Pittsburgh International Airport Hotel. Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review

The reality of pageant competition is far from what's portrayed on television in shows such as “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” said organizers and contestants vying for a chance to wear two top crowns this weekend at the Hyatt Regency Pittsburgh International Airport Hotel.

“They say publicity is never bad, but those who work with it as a profession sometimes look at that and go, ‘ouch,' ” said Randy Sanders, state director of the Miss Pennsylvania Teen USA and Miss Pennsylvania USA pageants.

The winners — to be crowned Sunday — advance to the 2013 Miss Teen USA and Miss USA pageants, the latter being televised on NBC.

Tierra Nichelle Jackson, 17, of Aliquippa, a newcomer to pageants, said her experience has been “nothing like what you'd think it would be.”

“A lot of people think it's purely about how you look, not how smart and well-rounded you are,” she said. “It's about beauty inside and out.”

Valerie Gatto, 23, of West View, said she doesn't like the message of reality shows, which also include “Toddlers & Tiaras,” that children need so many “additives” — heavy makeup, hair extensions — to shine.

“It's supposed to shape you as a woman and help you be happy with the real you,” said Gatto, who entered her first pageant at age 4.

Deborah Craver, 33, of Weatherly in eastern Pennsylvania, is a mother of nine, including teen contestant Kayla Craver. Her six girls, ranging in age from 7 to 17, all compete in pageants. She said it's helped Kayla overcome shyness.

“Now, she's so social,” she said.

Craver said she doesn't think there is a right or wrong age to enter children in pageants — it's about “when they're ready.” While she has been at competitions where “Toddlers & Tiaras” was filming, she does not watch the show.

“I don't think they show it in a very positive light,” she said.

Western Pennsylvania was thrust into the national media spotlight last summer, and pageants were stained again, when billionaire Donald Trump, who co-owns the Miss Universe Organization, threatened to sue former Miss Pennsylvania USA Sheena Monnin of Cranberry over her claims the Miss USA pageant was rigged.

Monnin, who could not be reached for comment, was crowned Miss Pennsylvania in December 2011 and resigned in June. At the time, she claimed a fellow contestant told her during the pageant in Las Vegas that she had seen a list of the top five finishers on a planning sheet hours before the pageant, and correctly listed the top finishers. Monnin didn't make the top 15.

Monnin also cited a recent change in pageant policy that allowed transgendered contestants to compete.

This year's contestants see the controversy as part of the pageant's past, and say they're much more interested in the future.

“Honestly, anyone competing in a pageant knows it's very fair,” said Alexandra Pacinda, 17, of Cranberry. “It's such a great experience. They understand it's about being yourself.”

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or rweaver@tribweb.com.

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