“Here she is — Miss America!”
While that somewhat sappy song may dredge up images of scantily-clad women traipsing across a stage, the Miss America pageant actually focuses on talent and intelligence as well as beauty. As a result, today’s contestants are not only among the most beautiful women in the nation, but also the most intelligent, poised, and socially aware.
Case in point is the current Miss Massachusetts, Lauren Kuhn.
A native of Washington State (where she graduated from Gonzaga University after serving as her high school Valedictorian), Kuhn came to Boston to attend the Harvard School of Dental Medicine and to conduct research at Beth Israel Hospital.
When asked how she became involved in the pageant world, the 2015 top-five finisher recalls following friends into the Miss America Teen program at the age of 16.
“You start at the local level, and then go on to the state and national levels,” she explains, citing 23 regional competitions in the Commonwealth. “I understood that talent was the biggest portion and that it was for scholarship money, so I had nothing to lose!”
In addition to the potential prize, Kuhn says she chose Miss America because it focused more on what contestants can do rather than what they look like.
“The current Miss America is very, very beautiful,” Kuhn clarifies, “but that is probably not what made her win.”
Noting that when she applied to Harvard it was only accepting 3.4% of all applicants, Kuhn is confident that the skills she developed as a Miss America contestant made the difference for her.
“They work you hard and really make you think,” she says of the pageant judges, “and I think these skills will serve me well going forward as well.”
One of the points that Kuhn was eager to discuss in her interviews was student loan debt.
“I said, 'Honestly, I’m broke!’" she recalls, noting that she used the same “real” language when discussing loans with legislators in Washington, DC.
“One of the representatives told me he would co-sponsor one of the bills I had discussed,” she recalls proudly. “It allows refinancing loans when interest rates change.”
When asked where her work ethic comes from, Kuhn thanks her parents.
“My dad owns a machine and hydraulics company,” she says, recalling early days when she wore a hard hat on instead of a crown, ”and my parents have always wanted me to help with that.”
Kuhn’s parents were so keen on having her prove her dedication, in fact, that they initially refused to let her study piano.
“Al of my friends were forced to play and then quit,” she explains. “My parents did not want me to play unless I really wanted it.”
While she now may excel at playing the Piano Concerto in A Minor by Greig and a number of other things, Kuhn says that one of her biggest lessons is to realize your talents and let other things go.
“I stopped trying to be perfect at everything,” she says.
In addition to avoiding forcing talents, Kuhn also advises not forcing truth.
“A lot of people try to say the ‘right’ thing,'” she says, recalling many dental colleagues citing their research in interviews. “If they all cite that, it does not set them apart.”
Another way in which Kuhn has tried to set herself apart is by passing on her scholarship support.
“I had always wanted to start a scholarship,” she says, citing another life goal, “so I had a garage sale and raised $500 and started with that.”
Hoping to find a female candidate who was interested in STEM-related studies, Kuhn found a student at Boston Latin School who was going to UMass Dartmouth.
“She was fabulous,” Kuhn beams, adding that the scholarship has already grown to $1,250.
As she prepares to crown her successor, Kuhn continues to make appearances (including volunteering at Walk MS Wakefield on June 21 and singing the National Anthem on June 25 to open the Lowell Spinners season), study dentistry, lobby for student aid, play piano and do all the things that have meaning in her life. And while none of it may be easy, it is all worthwhile for Kuhn.
“If someone says you cannot do something, “ she suggests, “they are wrong!” After all, she reasons, “If I wouldn't have tried and if I had taken the first hint at failure as a reason to stop, I would not be where I am.”