Pepperdine is no stranger to beauty. In fact, the Malibu campus is frequently identified as home to all things beautiful.
The panoramic seascape view, lush flora and exotic wildlife have all come to be part of the university’s distinct atmosphere.
This notion of beauty extends to the student body as well. And while the stereotypical impression of Pepperdine students as physically fit, sun-kissed beach bunnies is not always accurate, for some, perfecting a beautiful image has helped them launch a successful career in the beauty- pageant system.
“Pepperdine girls have been going to pageants and winning for the past several years,” said Kristen Bradford, the Miss Malibu and Miss Teen Malibu pageant director.
Bradford, who graduated from Seaver College in 2000 and the School of Public Policy in 2003, added that the University and the Malibu community have produced many pageant winners who progress to high levels of competition.
Freshman political science major Meagan Winings is one such student. Winings competed in a number of local pageants in her home state of Nebraska before going on to the Miss Nebrasksa Teen USA pageant.
After three years of competing in that pageant, Winings won the title Miss Nebraska Teen USA in 2004, which took her to the nationally televised Miss Teen USA pageant where she placed in the top 10.
Winings said her pageant experiences have been nothing but positive and encouraging.
“Pageants allowed me to challenge myself by stepping outside of my comfort zone,” she said. “They taught me to push myself and to always believe in myself.”
Nichole Ferrera, a 1998 graduate of Seaver College, said the beauty-pageant system also provided her with personal benefits.
“My pageant experience was kind of a launching pad for my self-confidence,” she said. “It gave me a whole new skill set. It helped me improve myself.”
At the age of 17, Ferrera became the youngest contestant to compete for the title of Miss California 1994. During her collegiate career at Seaver, she said she never lost touch with her penchant for the performing arts.
Ferrera performed in several musical and dance theater productions and, as a sophomore, hosted the annual university-wide “Songfest” musical competition.
After graduating, Ferrera said she realized she would have to find a way to pay for the education she had enjoyed at Pepperdine. That’s when she considered a return to the pageant system.
“I felt like a fish out of water,” she said. “The system had changed, and I had to get back into it.”
But Ferrera adjusted well. She was crowned Miss Los Angeles County in 2000 and became the preliminary swimsuit winner and second runner up at the 2000 Miss California Pageant.
“I didn’t win that year, but I felt really encouraged,” she said. “I was at a place in my life where I really needed that. I was out of college, and I needed a job. And young people tend to beat themselves up about that kind of stuff. It was a really helpful process and experience for me.”
Shannon Marketic, who attended Seaver College and the Grazadio School of Business and Management from 1991 to 2000, also expressed a similar conviction.
“I found pageants, by and large, to be an incredibly empowering and introspectively educational experience for most women,” she said.
Marketic was crowned Miss California 1992 and went on to win the crown at the Miss USA pageant. That year, she represented the United States in the Miss Universe competition.
Marketic, who progressed to the highest level of competition within the Miss Universe pageant system, said pageants were never one of her major career interests.
“They were just a way to be able to pay bills and afford to stay at Pepperdine,” she said. “I would say, if anything, it became an obstacle in my career. Even though I was already a published author and union actor, I suddenly was thrown into the position of having to prove my talent, because I was seen more as a beauty queen than a serious talent.”
For many contestants, beauty pageants serve an important purpose — they are a way to pay for higher education.
“Pageants can empower women who might not have the funds to achieve the education they want,” Ferrera said. “If they win a scholarship in the pageant system, they are empowered.”
Ferrera said she never considered herself a pageant competitor until she realized she could earn scholarship money to pay off student loans.
“I got a phone call from a pageant director, and I told her she had the wrong girl,” she said. “I’m not a pageant girl. I don’t parade around. I don’t tease my hair. I’m just a wash-and-go girl. But she told me there was a $2,000 scholarship. So I said, ‘Sign me up.’”
But the pageant system has also been plagued by critics who argue pageantry is degrading or damaging to women.
“Some people will argue that the swimsuit competition simply degrades women,” Winings said. “On the other hand, it is teaching them the value of good health, confidence in their bodies and high self-esteem. Personally, I don’t think pageants degrade women because it gives them an avenue to express themselves and to make a change.”
Bradford said the pageant system obviously has a stake in appearances and body image, but that is not the only factor that goes into deciding a pageant winner.
“Obviously, I can’t say that we’re looking for unattractive people, because that’s not true,” she said. “But my experience in pageantry is that the skinniest or most gorgeous person usually doesn’t win. They are looking for the girl who has it all.”
Marketic said she agreed that a well-rounded individual is the toughest pageant competitor.
“It’s not the prettiest girl, the girl with the highest GPA, the girl with the most community-service involvement, the girl with the most extracurricular activities,” she said. “It’s the woman who embodies the whole package.”
Winings said it is important to remember that pageant competitors often have much more than simply good looks.
“Most contestants, specially at the national level, have 4.0 GPAs, scholarship awards a mile long, are involved in numerous charities and most have made an impact on their community in some way,” she said.
Critics also cite the nature of the competition, which often leads to contestants being portrayed as catty and conceited.
Marketic said she agreed that pageant competitors are frequently typecast as vain and shallow.
“Unfortunately, many are (vain and shallow),” she said. “Fortunately, many are not. It’s like anything else, like professional athletes or musicians. Many fit the stereotype, and many more do not.”
Ferrera said she experienced some negativity from other contestants, but that her overall experience was very positive.
“I know there were some girls who came away with very negative attitudes,” she said. “Those were the girls who had more of a fake attitude. Behind your back, you knew they were saying mean things.”
Marketic said that not all pageants are designed to empower participants.
“I do believe that children’s pageant are ridiculous,” she said. “I refuse to judge them.”
Equally disturbing to pageant critics is the occurrence of eating disorders within the system.
Ferrera, who developed an eating disorder during college as a result of a negative long-term relationship, said some girls within the pageant system do have eating disorders.
“You did see girls who were very restrictive about what they ate,” Ferrera said. “What you probably didn’t always see were the girls who would eat and then get rid of it. But, from what I could gather, I would say most of the girls there did not have an eating disorder. But, to be honest, some do.”
Ferrera said she decided to eating-disorder awareness her platform issue as a pageant competitor.
“I wanted to create an awareness and try to help rehabilitate,” she said.
Ferrera added she does not think eating disorders are a problem exclusive to the pageant system. If anything, the pageant system only magnifies a societal problem, she said.
“It’s a reflection of what’s going on in our society,” Ferrera said. “Women are put under extreme pressure about what we look like. I don’t think the pageant system exacerbates or perpetuates the issues that all women have to deal with.”