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November 19, 2017

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Meet the Miss America judges: How difficult is it to select the winner?


Bruce Boyajian/Miss America Organization

2013 Miss America Pageant judges Katie Stam Irk, McKayla Maroney, Mary Hart, Sam Champion, Daymond John, Cheryl Burke and Bradley Bayou.

Miss America

2013 Miss America Pageant: Seven Judges

2013 Miss America Pageant judges McKayla Maroney and Sam Champion at PH Live in Planet Hollywood on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013. Launch slideshow »

For each of the seven judges charged with selecting the next Miss America, the task this week has proven far more difficult than they imagined. For the first time, TV cameras have filmed the secret judging process, and the 10-minute interviews that count for so much in the voting will be seen on Lara Spencer’s one-hour ABC “20/20” report “Pageant Confidential: The Road to the Crown” on Saturday before the two-hour pageant.

All the judges agreed that they were incredibly impressed by the hard work and community service that the 53 contestants had put in to reach this 92nd annual pageant at PH Live in Planet Hollywood. It’s now the day before the contestants learn who will succeed 2012 Miss America Laura Kaeppeler.

The judging has been a weeklong task for Bradley Bayou, Cheryl Burke, Sam Champion, Mary Hart, Daymond John, McKayla Maroney and 2009 Miss America Katie Stam Irk. In addition to their press conference, I talk individually with them about the contestants and the difficulty of the judging assignment.


“Entertainment Tonight” host for 30 years Mary told me: “A turning point in my life was when I was in the Miss South Dakota Pageant, so I was part of the Miss America process and was familiar with the pageant structure. Now with that said, coming in as a judge when we had orientation, I started to feel the pressure. It made me a bit nervous. Sitting there for the past 2 1/2 days, as we have, interviewing these young women, has not necessarily been easy for me.

“I am trying to listen so carefully and evaluate. Have they been tremendously rehearsed? Does it seem natural? They are all wildly impressive, and if this is a representation of tomorrow’s America, we are in great hands. But it is difficult because I think we all take the responsibility seriously. We are all here because we are looking for not the perfect person, because that is impossible to find, but the young woman who has relatability and compassion.

“It is compassion, intelligence, caring, beauty inside and out, and it is a tremendous responsibility, so our next Miss America, and we have no doubt we are going to have a wonderful Miss America, has to have all of that in one package so that she can represent the youth today and perhaps take focus away from the negative things in society today and help younger people strive for bigger and better things in their life.”


2012 Olympic champion gymnast McKayla added: “I came in here and I am used to being judged, not judging, so it was a little bit different, but I really like it, and I really respect all these girls so much. I can’t wait to be a part of it. It is such an honor.

“Every single one of these girls is so special. I know how hard they have worked, and I just try to judge them fairly. My favorite thing to pick out is just somebody that I know that I would love to look up to and who can be relatable to all ages.”


Katie said: “The judging process truly is perfected because the Miss America Organization takes that so seriously, and they really have it down to a science. As far as our ability to judge, it is always difficult. I find it difficult because I think all of these girls are spectacular, and it would be so easy to give them all a perfect 10 because they deserve it.

“I think that as we are looking to crown the next Miss America, we are looking for the best of the best, and as we have been told and as we have come to realize, this judging process works, and we need to trust the process.

“They have all worked so hard, their entirely lives truly, not just since they were crowned their local or state title, and we understand the importance of all of us to accept that fact that this is going to be such a life-changing experience for all of them, regardless of whether or not they come home with the title and crown.

“So, it is easy to remain objective because each of these young women are spectacular in their own right. As far as what we are looking for is someone who is going to understand the importance of education and service with this organization and represents it to her fullest ability every single moment.”


“Shark Tank” star Daymond commented: “It is much harder than I thought it would be. I throw really difficult, sometimes it can be perceived as nasty, questions at them because I want them to be on their toes. What is even harder about that is when they get it right and hit it on the head, which I would have not got any of them right at 21, 22 years old.

Click to enlarge photo

2013 Miss America Pageant judges Katie Stam Irk, 2009 Miss America, and McKayla Maroney, 2012 Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast.

“I am investing in a person the same way the country and the judges are investing in a person. Can they take this crown and for the next year be a beacon for every female as well as males in regards to the brand of Miss America? It is really easy to give everyone a fair shot because you are investing in an individual.”


“Good Morning America’s” Sam said: “It is a thousand times harder than I thought it would be and encouraged that way by the pageant. I thought I would be meeting delicate flower beauty queens with not a lot to say and that we would be instructed to take it easy on them -- and it is quite the opposite. I am incredibly impressed.

“You are judging these women on each individual thing. It’s their performance, it’s their question, it’s their gown, so you are judging them individually on each one of those, and it comes out perfectly objective because you are not looking at this young lady as a whole until you get to the very end of it, and it has already been kind of whittled down.

“I think we are looking for that young woman who does take the positive edge of celebrity, a fresh look at Miss America, it is energized, it is a great pageant, and this young woman will inspire other young women.”


Pro-dancer champion Cheryl from “Dancing With the Stars” said: “It’s so much harder than I expected. I was more nervous to sit on the judge’s seat than to dance in front of millions of people. The whole process has been an eye opener, and I learn so much every single day just being able to spend a little time with all these beautiful women.

Click to enlarge photo

2013 Miss America Pageant judge Cheryl Burke.

“For me, it is my first time being in the judge’s seat because I am always the one being judged, so I understand what these beautiful young women are going through. I am just trying to find someone I can relate to, as a young woman myself, to see if I can really connect to them, to see if they are just down to Earth, to see if they are able to go anywhere in the country and relate to anybody.

“I have to say I have a newfound respect for Miss America because all of these women are so talented and so educated, and it has been just a pleasure to be here and judge for Miss America.”


Oprah Winfrey’s design guru Bradley, who reminded me that I filmed him for “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous” 30 years ago, added: “Hell, yeah, it is difficult. I wasn’t expecting this at all. First of all, to read their resumes and say how can this kid be 19 years old and have done this, I feel under-accomplished after reading them.

“But the interview process was fascinating to me. I put myself in their position and asked myself could you take these kind of questions at 19, 20 years old? I couldn’t do it; there is no way.

“I come from the fashion world, and I think we in the fashion business have sort of set a bad image for young girls today, and the great thing about judging these girls is they offer so much more. I want to find someone who is inspirational. Not just physically, but on all levels. These girls really are blowing me away, and I hope that we do justice to what they have put into this.”

Engaged: Brian Irk & Katie Stam

Brian Irk proposed to his girlfriend of four years, 2009 Miss America Katie Stam, at the Evening of Dreams gala in Planet Hollywood on Jan. 29, 2010. Katie said yes. Launch slideshow »

Now knowing how difficult it has been for the judges, I had a question for chief judge Mary about the contestants with the most heartbreaking stories: one with autism; another who faces a double mastectomy because of breast cancer that runs in her family; and another who suffers from Tourette syndrome.

I wanted to understand how they put aside feelings and emotions to still be able to judge impartially.

Mary responded: “Robin, the question is difficult on one hand and easy on another because you cited three dramatic examples. We talked with each one of these young women in that 10-minute period about an awful lot of things, and they are not the only three young women who have overcome tremendous obstacles.

“Each in their own way is so admirable and has faced the odds. They are already winners in life with the struggles that they have gone through, whether it be race in some cases, abuse, cyber bullying, you name it. These young women have a litany of things that they have overcome in their lives, so each one of them is capable of being an incredible role model and already, in fact, is.

“So, I am not going to put more weight on one thing than another. What I am looking at personally, and I think all seven of us are, is how does she present herself, now that we have done all the interviews, in swimsuit, in evening gown, in answering that quick question onstage and in talent. It is really the full package, and each one is kind of an emotional situation, but again 53 contestants all of whom have faced challenges very successfully.

Katie, who has been a contestant, a winner and now a judge, added: “A lot of people think how in the world are you going to choose the next Miss America in 10 minutes? But keep in mind that the job of Miss America is a job of first impressions, and whether you have an hour, 10 minutes or 10 seconds, each and every person that comes in contact with that current Miss America needs to walk away and say that’s why.

“As far as success, it is defined differently by each Miss America because we are so different. I categorized my year into three different jobs, if you will. I said that I want to accomplish as much as I can as far as raising funds and bringing awareness for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. I also want to be an advocate for our military, serve as a voice for them and give back as much as I can.

“And, thirdly, I want to be able to serve as an advocate for my personal platform, which is promoting community service and involvement. I felt in the 12 months that I was given, as Miss America 2009, if I was able to accomplish as much as I possibly could for those three jobs, then I was successful.

“So for each Miss America, it is going to be different, but there is no right or wrong as to what success looks like because we are all very driven, all very motivated, and we are all ready to make a difference.”

I asked her if it was tougher being a contestant or a judge. She chuckled: “I don’t know which is more nerve racking, being judged or the one who is judging. I don’t know if I have decided that just yet. Someone asked me which part I was more nervous about as a contestant, and I think it is a different kind of nerves because when I was a contestant, I was so nervous about the anticipation. As a judge, I am nervous all the time. I am so humbled by the opportunity to do it.”

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

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