These Milford college students are vying for Miss Connecticut

MILFORD — Pageant winners can be considered as people who set a standard of beauty. But one Miss Connecticut contestant hopes to redefine what the word “beauty” even means.

“My social impact initiative is reshaping the standard of beautiful,” said Miss Milford Laura Christie, 22, a student at the University of Hartford and one of three Miss Connecticut contestants who live in Milford. “It’s where I try to tackle society's beauty standards and I am trying to challenge, change and empower other people to talk about their mental health and open up about their struggles, and how we are all beautiful.”

Miss Connecticut is a scholarship competition for women between the ages of 17 and 25. Contestants must earn a spot by competing in local and regional competitions. Miss Connecticut is a preliminary to the Miss America competition. Contestants are judged on a private interview, on-stage interview/social impact pitch, talent and red carpet. This year’s event includes 18 participants and is scheduled for April 10 and 11 at Mohegan Sun.

Sierra O’Keefe, 20, who attends Assumption College, was named Miss Nutmeg 2021, said her social impact initiative is PACE (Providing Awareness and Consent Education).

“That is primarily focused on bringing resources for survivors in college campuses and different education circumstances, as well as bringing awareness of consent education and really bringing that to the forefront, whether it be organizations, clubs or programs,” she said.

Miss Shoreline Anna Jani, 19, a student at Southern Connecticut State, hopes to increase ideological tolerance.

“Right now, in this day and age, it is so important that we remember that not everybody is going to have the same opinion as us regarding politics, religion and honestly any sort of social interaction,” she said.

The topics the three chose may seem broad, but that allows contestants to be flexible and adaptable when it comes to focusing on a topic within their respective social impacts.

“Now with the whole Stop Asian Hate movement that has been picking up traction within the last two weeks, I sort of been thinking about focusing my social initiative on stopping Asian discrimination and oppression and systemic racism,” Jani said.

Christie said her social impact initiative has roots in her personal experiences.

“I reflected back on my younger self and how I struggled with my mental health and how I struggled with a binge eating disorder in high school,” she said. “It was kind of how I viewed myself as not worthy compared to others because of my weight and size. So when Miss America 2.0 was announced in 2019, I knew that this was an organization that I wanted to be a part of because I wanted to make a difference and I wanted to show and other people that they can do anything regardless of what they look like.”

O’Keefe came to her personal initiative through working in a peer advocacy group on campus.

“They kept on highlighting different resources for survivors of domestic and sexual violence,” O’Keefe said. “It just didn’t feel like enough to me, so that’s kind of how I got involved that way, putting those ideas in the forefront.”

Of the three, Christie has the most experience in pageants, starting as a guest singer in 2011. The daughter of a pageant judge, she was named Miss Shoreline Outstanding Teen in 2013, but then stopped competing for six years.

“I thought I never had a chance to compete with the Miss Swimsuit competition,” she said. But with the updated Miss America rules, she decided to compete again.

With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing organizers to cancel last year’s competition, Jani said the opportunity to compete in an in-person pageant was exciting.

“When I heard that we were going to have the Miss Connecticut competition, it sort of blew my mind because I knew this was going to be an amazing opportunity after so long not being able to be in-person with almost anybody,” she said. “Being able to make those connections with the other ladies in-person is going to be an amazing opportunity.”

O’Keefe agreed that meeting fellow contestants was part of the experience.

“Finding out that we were not only able to have a competition, but have one in person, it really brings the sisterhood to life,” she said. “It’s lovely seeing people on Zoom, but I do miss that in-person interaction and it definitely gets me excited.”

For the talent portion of the competition, O’Keefe and Jani plan to showcase talents that may seem a bit unconventional.

“The truth, honestly, is that I’m not a singer and not a dancer,” said O’Keefe, who lists CPR as her talent. “But I have a passion for the medical field. The main thing I want to do in life is to save someone’s life, whether it be literally in that moment to save someone’s mental health or being able to provide for someone and change their life.”

Jani hopes to wow the judges with her ability to translate written Korean into English, despite not being of Korean descent.

“I was listening to Korean pop music with my friends and I wanted to know what the lyrics said so I researched how to write in Korean,” she said. “I downloaded an app, taught myself the letters and kept practicing”

Christie, a singer, said her talent helped her connect with people.

“I was extremely shy when I was younger, but through music, for some reason, when I get up on that stage, I would be able to sing and connect with people,” she said. “I’m excited to bring that to the Miss Connecticut stage.”

Although a Miss Connecticut winner receives scholarship money and other support, plus a chance to compete to be Miss America, contestants also have a chance to represent their communities, Jani said.

“My family is both Muslim and Christian and I never saw any representation in the media who looked like me, came from similar backgrounds,” she said. “So, when you have representation in the media of people who are of a similar background as you, who look like you, it really does inspire you to reach high. I want to be able to do that for people because I didn’t really have anybody like that for me, and I know how important that is.”

Christie said she struggled with anxiety due to being plus-sized.

“I just know that there so many girls like me who are out there, who need someone to make that first step and say, ‘Hey, I look like you and you can do this too,’” she said. “Something amazing that’s come out of this organization for me is the amount of young women that I’ve been able to connect with. They’ve told me that they’ve stopped participating in pageants because they’ve gained 50 pounds but because of me, they are going after their dreams.”

For O’Keefe, the goal is to help those who have been affected by sexual violence and domestic violence take back their lives.

“It’s something that has impacted me and it was very difficult to find resources, but also to feel like I had a voice,” she said. “Being able to show people as Miss Connecticut, that not only can you take back your life and take back your strength, but you can also help others. I think that is what the Miss Connecticut role is meant to be.”