This year's Miss Philadelphia holds a special significance for the pageant's executive director, U.S. Army Col. Kevin McAleese.
"Having the current Miss Philadelphia is a joy because I've been to Iraq and Bosnia and I have the disease," he said. The war veteran is referring to traumatic brain injury, a cause that this year's winner, 20-year-old Drexel University junior Lauren Bilski, has identified as her platform.
"I had a student that became sick with encephalitis in one of my dance classes," said Bilski, a dance and physical therapy major who has been teaching ballet and creative movement to children since the age of 14. "She was such an inspiration to me."
The experience spurred Bilski to become involved with Camp Cranium, a one-week camp for children with brain injuries where she has been a counselor for two years.
(Check out this video of Bilski talking about her background.)
Rather than first competing in pageants and seeking a cause to throw her weight behind as an afterthought, Bilski's family said that advocacy is what led the pageant's first-ever Drexel winner to compete in the first place. "She was a competitive dancer since very young – she began at the age of three – so she was into that world some," said her mother, Sharon Bilski. "But she's very passionate about the platform and thought through Miss Philadelphia she could do something with it."
But advocating for victims of traumatic brain injury has its difficulties. "Being that my platform is dealing with medical things, I wanted to go in understanding health care. I had to brush up on the Supreme Court debates and read all the transcripts – that was the toughest part of preparing for the pageant," Bilski said.
Still, the newly-crowned Miss Philadelphia emerged successful at the sold-out Saturday show at Drexel's Mandel Theater – especially considering it was only her second pageant. Bilski will go on to compete for the Miss Pennsylvania title in May.
Here's another video of Miss Philadelphia today: