May 18, 2022

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Making living better

The crowning achievement for Anchorage’s Emma Broyles might be challenging assumptions about what it means to be Miss America

12 min read

Miss America had yet to make her grand entrance at a gala in her honor when a couple yawns escaped.

Emma Broyles of Anchorage, who won the title in December, peeked into the Hotel Captain Cook ballroom from the adjacent kitchen. With a few minutes to spare, she sat on a luggage rack out of view for a fleeting moment’s rest.

It had already been a long day and there were hours to go on a Saturday filled with appearances and recognition for Broyles, the first woman from Alaska named Miss America in the 100-year history of the pageant. A full house waited to celebrate, including her family, grandparents, aunts and uncles, some of whom flew in for the black-tie occasion.

“At this point, I just gotta make sure that I keep my brain running,” Broyles said as she wrapped up a photo shoot and television interview before the event. Being Miss America was an honor, she said. It’s also work.

Starting that morning, Broyles had rehearsed and performed songs multiple times, rode a float in the Fur Rendezvous parade and emceed an event for dozens of her co-contestants from other states. She greeted, signed autographs and posed for pictures much of the day, with her security director and Anchorage police on the periphery. Between each stop, people tugged at her attention near-constantly.

It was one busy day in what will be a whirlwind year for the 20-year-old. Caroline Hunter, one of Miss America’s tour managers, said the title-holder can typically expect to be “on” three or four days a week, and traveling much of the rest of the time. “We travel usually every 48 to 72 hours,” Hunter said. At least once this year, Broyles expects to be on the road for an entire month.

Broyles said she is still growing accustomed to a job she never expected to land. And it’s a job in a literal way. During her Miss America year, she is paid a $120,000 salary, she said. That’s in addition to the $100,000 scholarship money she was awarded at the national contest in Uncasville, Connecticut.

Duties include traveling the country for speaking engagements, serving as national spokesperson for the Miss America Organization, and pushing her chosen “social impact initiative.” Broyles champions the Special Olympics and advocates inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities. And she adds her own style to the role with blunt talk about her mental health and other personal issues.

To make room in her life, she’s temporarily dialing back her workload as a student at Arizona State University, where she’s majoring in biomedical sciences with an eye toward being a dermatologist.

Being Miss Alaska during the pandemic offered no glimpse into what winning the national title would be like. “It was really hard to find events because nobody wanted Miss Alaska,” Broyles said. “And then after I won Miss America, everybody wanted to book me.”

Eleven hours after her workday began, a sparkling gold curtain parted and Broyles entered the room on a red carpet, arm-in-arm with her father to a standing ovation.

Modern-day Miss America

Broyles entered her first pageant in 2017, drawn by the scholarship prize. She said the contest seemed like a good fit for a 15-year-old who liked to sing onstage and had volunteer work experience to discuss.

“I had never worn a gown before. I had never worn heels before. I had never done my own makeup. I had never really worn makeup before,” she said.

Broyles won Miss Anchorage Outstanding Teen, “and then I was thrown into this world of pageantry.” In July, she won the Miss Alaska competition, which propelled her to the Miss America stage.

Broyles dons the crown while a yearslong effort is underway to change what it means to wear it. These days, participants tend to bristle at the term “beauty pageant” and are quick to point out that physical appearance is no longer a judging criterion. The organization prefers descriptors like “competition” and “candidate” nowadays, rather than “pageant” and “contestant,” Hunter said.

In 2018, the Miss America Organization announced changes it said aligned with an ongoing “cultural revolution.” Gone was the swimsuit competition that had been elemental since the pageant’s founding days. A statement announcing the changes concluded with a suggested hashtag: #byebyebikini.

Broyles, who said she has never competed in a pageant that included a swimsuit competition, is reluctant to criticize those who have. But she thinks the organization made the right call. She prefers more opportunities to speak.

“I think that the second that somebody sees a girl in a swimsuit, the second they see her embrace her femininity, I think that they automatically assume that there’s no chance that she could ever be intelligent,” Broyles said.

[Previously: Q&A with Emma Broyles on Alaska representation, Korean heritage and empowering young women]

The changes didn’t satisfy all of Miss America’s critics.

“No matter how much it might like to rebrand itself for the 21st century, it cannot escape the ideas of womanhood it was founded on,” wrote essayist B.D. McClay for New York Times Magazine in January.

“As of 2018, Miss America claims not to judge participants by their appearances at all — it is only by happy accident that its participants are willowy and symmetrical,” McClay wrote.

Broyles said she hopes to change minds about what Miss America embodies now.

“That is one of the hardest things that I feel like I’m fighting, and I feel like I can sense it with other women sometimes. I can kind of tell that they don’t trust me and they feel like I can’t be a feminist because I compete in Miss America,” Broyles said.

“But I do my best to really show them that I can embrace my femininity, and yes, I am a part of an organization that at one point used to be a beauty pageant, but see how much we’ve changed.”

An open book

While Broyles’ stated mission is to boost the impact of Special Olympics, she has also found that candid discussion of her personal struggles is a powerful way she can impact lives.

“Especially being in a role like Miss America, there’s so many young people who look up to me. And I don’t want to give them a false image of who I am and make them think that to be like that, they have to be absolutely perfect,” she said.

Broyles, who often shares intimate details of her lived experiences including identity issues and mental health challenges, hasn’t always been so comfortable in her own skin. Middle school years in Anchorage were particularly tough, she said, not because she was intentionally treated badly, but because of her desire to “fit in” in a mostly white school.

“I never really felt like I saw anybody who looked like me, and I hated the fact that I was Korean. I did everything that I could to look more white,” Broyles said. “I even bleached my hair at one point.”

“I would see the most popular girls at the school with their pretty blond hair and their blue eyes and all the boys would be chasing after them. I was just so embarrassed because I thought that I was completely unlovable and unwanted because I looked different,” she said.

It’s an uncomfortable topic, Broyles said, but she suspects that many young people can relate. She hopes that by hearing her discuss it, they’ll feel less alone and ashamed.

“It’s embarrassing to talk about, right? It’s a hard thing to admit, right? Nobody wants to say that they wished they were white, especially in this day and age. That just sounds stupid. It’s totally true though,” she said.

Things changed for the better at her high school, which was more diverse. There, she grew close to other Korean students who spoke Korean and ate Korean food. She enjoyed hearing her grandparents, Myung “Sarah” Kim and Boo Yul “Paul” Kim, who moved to Anchorage from South Korea in 1970, share stories about their lives.

“I remember feeling at that point like I could really embrace my culture and be myself,” she said.

There were other hints of Broyles’ frank nature before she first wore the Miss America sash. In an interview segment of the contest, she was asked a question about being open and vulnerable. She decided the time was right to speak about her experiences with dermatillomania and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Broyles said acne triggered dermatillomania, a compulsive skin picking disorder classified as a type of obsessive compulsive disorder. She would pick imperfections until her face was bloody, then pick the scabs, which would prevent healing. The repetitive behavior could cause hours to disappear. Sometimes she would lock herself in the bathroom and turn on the shower to hide her behavior.

“It’s a disorder that comes with a lot of shame,” she said.

It wasn’t until 2021 that she was diagnosed with inattentive ADHD. She suspected she might fit the description prior to the pandemic, but her struggles during remote learning last year led her to finally seek help.

“I had no motivation. I laid in bed all day, and that was when my dermatillomania was really bad, too. I kind of fell into a bit of a depression …,” she said. “I flunked test after test after test, which is very unlike me, but not going to class in person kind of took a toll on my ability to focus.”

Broyles compares her treatment to what it might be like for a person with poor vision to get glasses. That Saturday morning as she prepared for the day’s events, Broyles unzipped the black makeup bag she carries often. Inside was her bedazzled Miss America crown. Tucked next to it was her prescription medication.

Being Miss America doesn’t compel her to discuss such personal aspects of her life, Broyles said, but she hopes discussion can help dissolve stigma and boost confidence for people with similar stories.

“I feel like back in the day, it was this time when you really had to put on this facade because you would be so shamed by society,” Broyles said. “And I feel like now, I spoke about my mental health issues on the Miss America stage and I was applauded for it.”

She’s not declaring her own battles won. Learning how best to care for her mental health while juggling her responsibilities is a work in progress.

“I do my absolute best, but … I still have not quite nailed it,” she said.

The weight of the crown

It was 11:15 p.m. before Broyles made it back to her hotel room after her ball. It was the first moment she had to herself since the day began, she said. She would later write that she would cherish her whole homecoming experience. But the day had lots of things — joyous and stressful, fun and frustrating, exhilarating and exhausting.

“I got back to my room and I was still in my gown, and I laid down on my bed, and I was too tired to like, get up and take off my makeup and take off my crown even …,” Broyles said. “And I just started crying.”

“I felt like I had so much stress building up through the entirety of that day, that I just needed a way to release it,” she said. “And that’s honestly the best way for me to release my stress, is to cry.”

It helped her feel better, but she had to sleep fast. Broyles woke at 5 a.m. to prepare for Sunday’s itinerary. The following night she slept for 11 hours, she said.

The job is glamorous and fun, she said. Appearing at the Super Bowl was one highlight so far. But she can’t say there haven’t been moments when she wondered what she’s gotten herself into. Perhaps the first time was shortly after she won and she perused Miss America coverage online.

“I did the thing that nobody should ever do. I couldn’t help myself, but I read the comments,” she said.

Some said there was no way she’ll make it through medical school. Others said pageants are demeaning to women. “I saw also so many comments that say, ‘If this is a beauty pageant, why is she so ugly?’ ” she said.

The payoff comes with experiences like she had days after the homecoming ball. Last Tuesday, she stepped into the gym at Service High School, her alma mater, to a pep-rally reception. Anchorage School District superintendent Deena Bishop called it “absolutely appropriate” that Miss America be held up as an example to students.

“Pageants are changing as times do …,” Bishop said. “And this is about their abilities, their discussions, their interviews, their poise and really speaking about their hopes and dreams.”

“This is pretty surreal to be back,” Broyles told the students.

Then she launched into her message, encouraging them to carry on the school’s spirit of inclusivity with students who experience intellectual disabilities.

Her own efforts had been formative when she was a Service student, she said. Julie Broyles, Emma’s mother and a Service High School special education teacher, said all three of her children have long been involved with Special Olympics and Partners Club, which pairs students with and without intellectual disabilities for educational goals, life skills and fun activities.

“I got to see my brother, who has Down syndrome, walk down the hall hand-in-hand with a varsity football player,” Broyles told the students in the full gym. “I think you probably wouldn’t see that at any other school if you went down to the Lower 48 maybe.”

Broyles encouraged students to consider joining Partners Club.

“Who knows, you end up being best friends with one of the students in the life skills class,” Broyles said. “And that’s something that you can carry with you for the rest of your life.”

Watching from the audience was Sue Perles, CEO for Special Olympics Alaska, and Adam Ahonen, a Service special education teacher and Partners Club sponsor. Both said Broyles is having an impact, not just for their organizations but for their underlying principles.

“She’s been a part of the Special Olympics program since she was in elementary school. And to have her now have a national or international platform to talk about the things we hold dear, it’s just fabulous,” Perles said.

“I can talk till I’m blue in the face, but being an old teacher, I don’t carry the same weight …,” Ahonen said. “Just seeing the connection and that draw that she has, and also spreading that we should be nice to everybody and include everybody, just makes our school a better place the next day.”

Broyles called it a full circle moment. Service students are interested in improving their community, she said, and contributing to their enthusiasm was “absolutely fulfilling.”

“It feels like my work here is done,” Broyles said.

When the hourlong event ended, students swarmed around Broyles for selfies until Anchorage police officers escorted her toward an exit. One student looked around from the balcony once the gym emptied out.

“I want to ask Miss America to prom,” he said. “Where is she?”

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