Isabelle Henderson was crowned Miss Montgomery County on Sunday night after an onstage performance that left little doubt that the 50th edition of the Miss America local preliminary has come a long way from the first.
Henderson, a communications and sociology major at the University at Buffalo Honors college, was one of six women competing for the two county crowns.
Alexis Houser, of Johnstown, was named Miss Fulton County.
The event is organized by the Miss Fulton County & Miss Montgomery County Scholarship Organization.
The contest, which is one of nine remaining Miss America preliminary competitions in New York state, had to take a one-year hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, but it returned to form Sunday night at the Rao Theater at Fulton-Montgomery Community College.
Long gone is the swimsuit competition — eliminated by the Miss America organization in 2018 — as well as the “beauty pageant” label, but still present in the contest were glamourous gowns, high heels and nerve wracking competition. The six contestants were judged on their ability to conduct themselves in an on-stage interview, conducted before the stage show, their “Social Impact Pitch” and the talent competition, which this year featured five dance routines and a song sung by Chelsea Cirillo.
Henderson performed an athletic jazz dance routine, but it was during her Social Impact Pitch “Empowering Women in Sports” that she showed the courage of her convictions and her willingness to take on controversial topics. Henderson argued for the importance of sports in helping women become leaders, noting that 80% of female executives at Fortune 500 companies in a survey said they had participated in sports growing up.
When asked a question by one of the five contest judges, 1979 Miss Fulton County Terri Hampton Brubaker, about her view on whether transgender women should be allowed to compete in women’s sports, Henderson didn’t flinch from the controversial topic.
“Both psychologically and sociologically transgender women are women, and because of that they should be allowed to compete in biological women’s sports,” Henderson said.
After the contest, Henderson credited her experience in the Miss American contest system as being partially responsible for her developing her poise in pressure situations, which she said has given her the courage to speak out about controversial topics, including her participation in the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer of 2020.
“I’m very outspoken in what I believe in, and I’m not going to change that for any reason, and this (competition) is a platform for me to be able to speak my opinion,” she said.
Houser, who’s been involved in dancing since she was 3 years old, performed a jazz tap dance routine and advocated for raising awareness of pediatric cancer, which affected one of her cousin’s who was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2019. She said being Miss Fulton County has been a goal of hers since she watched the 2022 competition’s Mistress of Ceremonies Lexi Swatt win her first outstanding teen competition.
“I remember sitting in the audience and saying ‘Mommy I want to be like that girl’,” she said.
Swatt, a past Miss Fulton County winner, is now a television reporter at Channel 13 in Albany. She said she views the Miss America competition as one of the formative experiences of her education and professional career.
“I will be doing this until they kick me out,” she said of her association with the competition. “It was one of the biggest things that impacted my career. I was competing from the time I was 7-years-old in the Miss Fonda Fair Pageant. The skills that you build working and speaking to people that you don’t know in professional situations, working on the fly and handling yourself when you feel overwhelmed — all of that absolutely translates into when you’re trying to get into an evening gown when you’re supposed to be on in 90 seconds when I’m trying to work on my (TV news) script, making sure that it’s accurate and then getting on TV while looking presentable.”
The contest winners each took home $3,000 scholarship prizes, and all of the participants were awarded at least $200 each and their contest entry fees were paid for by the local competition’s donors.