Student Spotlight

RPI's Miss Tennessee breaks down the history of pageants

Originally from Memphis, Tennessee, graduate student Lily Donaldson is the 2021 Miss Tennessee title holder in the Miss United States division. Donaldson earned her Bachelor of Science in Computer Science from American University before joining Rensselaer in August 2020. She then earned her Masters of Science In Lighting. At RPI, she is currently in her second semester working to earn her PhD in the Built Ecologies program. Donaldson spoke with The Polytechnic about the history of American beauty pageants and her role as Miss Tennessee.

“People can’t imagine how you wouldn’t be ripping each other’s dresses and high heels like the movies…but it’s a sisterhood,” said Donaldson.

Beauty pageants originally began as a swimsuit competition in the 1920s for Miss America. During the 1950s and 1960s, competitions transitioned more into showcasing the societal ideals of femininity at the time. This change was more apparent in the 1990s and early 2000s, where pageants moved from being beauty contests and moved towards judging women based on their successes, intelligence, scholarship, and service, in hopes of showcasing a more holistic view of what defines femininity.

This ultimately created a divergence in competition systems. Systems like Miss USA and Miss Universe, which are focused more on the modeling aspect of competition often results in winners getting modeling contracts, make-up and clothing sponsorships, and runway offers. Systems like Distinguished Young Women, formerly known as America’s Junior Miss, however, shifted their program to be a competition for high school students focused on scholarship and creating a community centered around academics for young women. Systems like Miss America took more of a middle ground and have integrated aspects of pageantry and scholarship into their judging criteria.

Donaldson has been competing in the Miss America program since 2015, originally as part of the Outstanding Teen division, but now competes in the Miss America division centering her platform around the service pathway. In 2018, Donaldson founded Art Technically, a nonprofit organization that aims to promote STEM in arts education through educational workshops in Title I schools. Currently a team of eight people, the program focuses on exposing K-12 students to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics) topics through educational workshops. Last month, Art Technically held a Love Letters Project, where middle school students an art-based coding platform to learn to create over 2,200 Valentine’s Day cards for Meals on Wheels programs in Memphis, Tennessee.

Donaldson is the current 2022 title holder for Franklin County and will be competing in June for the title of Miss Tennessee. While she is ready to compete for the title, she shares that she is more excited about the in-person, week-long competition as she gets to meet and feel a sense of sisterhood again with the other 30 county title holders in Tennessee.