Photo Don Rask, DTR Photography
Laura Kaeppeler didn’t want to be Miss America.
There was no childhood dream realized as mascara-laced tears cascaded down her cheeks on Jan. 14, 2012, as the crown reached her head, as she embarked on her frenzied year of speaking engagements and appearances. The Kenosha native, whose father went to prison for mail fraud when she was a high school senior, got swept up in pageant hoopla while nearing graduation from Carthage College. A friend and former Miss Kenosha suggested signing up. Encouraged, Kaeppeler entered, won Miss Kenosha and was second-runner-up for Miss Wisconsin.
Thus hooked, she was ready to try again.
It’s March 2011, and Kaeppeler is wearing a red suit with heels, standing in a private room in Milwaukee’s Marion Center for Nonprofits. Five judges (I’m one) are shooting rapid-fire questions at the then-23-year-old. Why do you want to be Miss Southern Wisconsin? How will you help children of jailed parents? What crime did your father commit? Her voice breaks, and tears spring to her eyes. She stumbles, ignores the question and recovers in time for the next.
The private interview is a central part of the competition, clocking in at 25 percent of the total score, but the public doesn’t see it. In fact, the public doesn’t see many of the moments that define pageants, moments that are more than pure pageantry. But I, like many, am not easily convinced. I’m a psychologist by day and a pageant outsider. I’ve been invited to judge as research.
As the Miss Southern Wisconsin pageant continues, Kaeppeler walks back on stage, and judging veteran Dick Kozinowski leans toward me and excitedly says: “I’m telling you right now, you are looking at the next Miss Wisconsin. This girl has it all.”
Kaeppeler wins Miss Southern Wisconsin that day and attends the afterparty in a baggy shirt and jeans, scrubbed clean of the day’s makeup. She looks young and vulnerable, and her sadness during the interview comes back to me. I could coach her as she prepares for Miss Wisconsin. She’s got to get rid of those tears.
Kaeppeler shows up for our first coaching appointment. A slim girl in a black and white plaid coat, she smiles widely and speaks in a soft voice. She’d like to be Miss Wisconsin, but not Miss America. She’s intimidated by the national position.
With three months to prepare for the state competition, Kaeppeler creates a website for children with jailed parents, volunteers and amps up her opera. A personal trainer guides her workout and diet while organizers help select clothing, jewelry and makeup. Finally, her interview improves. “They can ask you anything,” she says. “You must know who you are and what you believe, then you must confidently express that to someone else.”
On June 18, 2011, at the Alberta Kimball Auditorium in Oshkosh, the crowd hears, “The new Miss Wisconsin is … Laura Kaeppeler!” Kimberly Sawyer, Miss Wisconsin 2010, crowns Kaeppeler. During her year as Miss Wisconsin, Sawyer wrote a workbook to teach winners how to support themselves. Miss Wisconsin is paid for appearances, but planning is required to earn enough to live on. “No one is going to get rich by becoming Miss Wisconsin,” says Jeanne Schmal, Miss Wisconsin executive director. Kaeppeler received $10,000 in scholarship money for the win, but school was put on hold. “Miss Wisconsin is a full-time job,” Kaeppeler says. “When I won, I felt joy, but it’s also a little nerve-racking.”
Four months after that win, in the midst of appearances discussing her platform of mentoring children of incarcerated parents, Kaeppeler points to those she’s reaching. “I do this because I want to help those kids,” she says, “not for the glitz or the glamour, or to become Miss America.” But she’s apparently found her voice and is ready to try for exactly that – Miss America.
Wisconsin is not a big pageant state. “Fewer girls from our state enter,” says CoryAnn St. Marie-Carls, co-director for Miss Milwaukee. But in certain communities, pageants are embraced – La Crosse, St. Francis, Door County, Green Bay and Oshkosh offer larger scholarships (a primary emphasis in today’s pageants) and more publicity. Thus, they tend to draw the most successful contestants. In other areas, competition isn’t exactly fierce. In 2011, 10 tried for Miss Milwaukee and eight for Miss Racine, says Joya Santarelli, Miss Wisconsin 2000 and director for Miss Kenosha.
Dr. Tina Sauerhammer hailed from Green Bay, one of those more devoted cities. She started college at age 14 and became the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay’s youngest-ever graduate at 18. By 22, she graduated from UW-Madison’s medical school. And along the way, she became Miss Wisconsin 2003. She put her
winnings toward med school bills and used her exposure to promote organ donation, leading to the passage of Cody’s Law. She was also on the surgical team that did the first full face transplant.
The 76-year-old Miss Wisconsin pageant has produced a slew of winners like Sauerhammer, smart and independent women. There was Jayme Dawicki, Miss Wisconsin 2002, who became an award-winning musician, and Stephanie Klett, who parlayed her 1992 win into a career as Wisconsin’s Secretary of Tourism. Santarelli (2000), Molly McGrath (2004) and Meghan Coffey (2006) all used their scholarship money for law school and became attorneys.
One Miss Wisconsin even snagged the Miss America crown back in 1973. That was Terry Meeuwsen, perhaps best known for co-hosting “Living the Life” on the Christian Broadcasting Network with Louise DuArt. Then in January, Kaeppeler made it two. She went from Miss Wisconsin to Miss America, garnering $50,000 to put toward law school along with the standard scrutiny. “Pageants are a funny thing,” says Tiffany Ogle, Miss Minnesota 2004 and co-host of “The Morning Blend” on WTMJ Channel 4. “They open so many doors, yet there are so many negative stereotypes you have to fight once you’re in those doors to prove yourself.”
Many view Miss America as outdated. “Hundreds of thousands of people still see this as a beauty pageant,” says Schmal, Miss Calumet County 1971. “They see only the glitz.” In 1961, the Miss America pageant boasted 85 million viewers and was TV’s highest-rated program. By 2003, viewership had declined to 10.3 million. The 2012 pageant posted the program’s best ratings in eight years, drawing an average of 8 million viewers in its final half-hour. The “success” likely stemmed from people who initially turned on their TVs for media sensation Tim Tebow’s NFL playoff game against the New England Patriots, then went channel-surfing once it became a blowout. They put down the remote control upon finding the pageant.
Perhaps some of those channel-flippers caught Kaeppeler’s on-stage interview question. She was asked about politics, specifically whether Miss America should declare her affiliation. What better topic for someone from Wisconsin, which has become the most politically polarized state in the nation? “Miss America represents everyone, so I think the message to political candidates is that they represent everyone as well,” she began. “And so in these economic times, we need to be looking forward to what America needs, and I think Miss America needs to represent all.”
It was a vague answer, but ended up being good enough.
Weeks later, while at a Milwaukee Press Club event, Kaeppeler was asked to revisit the question. This time, she answered definitively without so much as a pause: No, Miss America shouldn’t declare her political affiliation.
Kaeppeler had evolved and matured. The Miss America pageant has done so, too, with its scholarships, platforms and interviews. For instance, during the private interview portion, contestants are peppered with questions ranging from what magazine cover they see themselves on to who they voted for. But the public never sees it; the open dialogue isn’t TV-worthy.
What is? Swimsuits, gowns and, oh yes, the on-stage question. That Kaeppeler’s pageant answer contrasted with her answer at a much smaller event illustrates Miss America’s most egregious failure: The pageant doesn’t truly showcase the contestants – intelligent and articulate young women. At least not for the nation to see.