The two both entered the Miss California USA 2012 Pageant as anomalies: Mollie Thomas as the first openly lesbian contestant in circuit history and Tracy Francis as a straight woman of color representing L.A.’s queer capital, West Hollywood.
Though neither of them placed in the competition, their campaign platforms of promoting individuality for all women – a visible step away from the “old-fashioned pageant stereotype of a ‘50s housewife,” Thomas noted – caught the attention of America. Thomas especially, having set a historical precedent in California, was the subject of a national media buzz that discomforted some and empowered many.
Alongside modeling contracts and TV appearances, a unique opportunity was presented before the two former contestants several months after the pageant: a chance to produce and direct together a brand new pageant, set to the backdrop of Manhattan Beach. It would be the first West Coast competition for America’s It Girl Pageant, a new circuit that seeks to challenge traditional stereotypes of American pageant girls and emphasize individuality.
They signed on and got to work immediately.
“Women have evolved a lot since the pageant system started,” Thomas, 20, said. “I loved the whole experience, the camaraderie with all the contestants and I took the aspects of it that I loved and the ideas that I really liked, and I want to update them and tweak things. It’s time to move forward and create a system for the modern woman.”
The first-ever Miss Manhattan Beach Pageant is a “Project Runway meets Miss USA”-type competition that will cover the south side of Manhattan Beach pier with red carpet and film crews next March, as it will be locally televised. They’re currently rounding out their third month of recruiting girls and women between ages 13 and 30 from across Southern California who will represent their own communities, from Beverly Hills to a city fire department.
They’re also scouting for local fashion designers, including FIDM students, who will team up with contestants to create a unique style and line of clothing. The stylists will be competing against one another.
“Again, it’s all toward individuality,” Thomas said. “It’s not gonna be your typical ‘everyone’s in a black swimsuit and sparkly gown.’”
Miss Manhattan Beach is one of four America’s It Girl pageants across the country, including Miss Manhattan and Miss Jersey Shore. Thomas and Francis are also co-directing Miss San Francisco, which just recently opened recruitment.
Francis said she wants to parlay her own experience to inspire others to break into the industry, one that is “built to keep people out.”
“A lot of girls come to L.A. from different states to pursue entertainment and don’t know where to start,” Francis, 25, said. “I want to be that person to step forward and help other girls who have the same dreams that I have.”
For both of them, national exposure from the pageant sprung them onto a new trajectory in their respective careers. Thomas, an East Coast native who “grew up half on a farm in Pennsylvania, half in Manhattan,” is now a full-time model living in L.A. And Francis, an Inglewood native, is making her way onto the screen, cracking the code to navigate the notoriously exclusive entertainment industry.
Thomas and Francis are hardly the only ones to use pageantry as a stepping stone to realizing their career, Francis noted. Halle Berry, Eva Longoria, Beyonce, Rihanna and even Oprah – all competed in beauty pageants before establishing themselves as A-list celebrities.
Pageants are often written off as shallow and two-dimensional, Francis explained, but actually they can be rife with career-making opportunities like building social and business contacts, gaining exposure and attending exclusive events. Already, the co-directors are taking their contestants around town to show them the ropes, making pitches to potential sponsors and attending beauty con, fashion shows and mixers among others. As hands-on mentors, they’re striving to provide the organized support they wish they found in preparation of Miss California USA 2012.
“That’s what I wanted to change,” said Thomas, who had had no prior pageant experience. “I felt very much that I was in it on my own and I have to figure it out.”
The beauty pageant is split into two categories: the “Teen” title for ages 13-17 and “Miss” for ages 18 to 30. Francis noted that age 30 is a lax cutoff age compared to other pageants, a majority of which deem 25 as the cutoff. The two directors decided to extend it as another rejection of pageant conventions, to defy the standards permeating both the modeling and entertainment industry.
“It’s a bummer—you turn 25 and it just makes you feel old,” Francis said.
Thomas added, “I have friends who are in their 30s but look 25 and have fewer opportunities just because of their age. We want to give the women who are a little bit older the same opportunities. We want to bring in that element of maturity … and that’ll also help the girls who are younger to step up.”
The Miss Manhattan Beach Pageant is inclusive, but that doesn’t mean the directors can’t be selective. After all, the televised competition will have production values similar to Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show; plus, the winner of the title will take a bevy of prizes, including a diamond tiara and a one-year contract with a top modeling agency, and without a doubt a jumpstart into the career she wants.
“Even though we’re open, there’s a certain girl that we do look for,” Francis said. “We look for a girl who really wants to do something with herself and has her own voice.”
Miss Manhattan Beach is still accepting applications. Visit manhattanbeachpageant.com.