Last week, Miss USA Olivia Culpo captured the Miss Universe 2012 crown. Her win culminated two weeks of pageant events, including a preliminary competition that I had the honor to judge for second year. My favorite part is interviewing all 89 contestants from around the world. I get to speak with young women from so many different countries, languages and cultures. Amidst this global diversity, one common piece of advice emerged from many of the interviews: “Be yourself.” Whether you aspire to be Miss Universe or explore the universe as an astronaut (or both!), it’s a life lesson for becoming a WIN GIRL.
Pageant contestants are often derided for being “cookie cutter.” They can often sport similar looks, recurring hairstyles and predictable dresses (which one of my fashion designer friends calls “Pageant Betty” gowns). But the urge to conform is not unique to beauty pageants. In any endeavor, especially judged competitions, it’s a common trap to fit into what you think is the pre-ordained mold of a winner. Have you seen what figure skating and gymnastic athletes do to meet judges’ expectations? If I have to hear another figure skater use “Carmen” or “Swan Lake” as her music choice, I might scream.
That’s why it was pleasantly surprising to hear a number of Miss Universe delegates say the best advice they received, in preparing for the pageant or just in life, was to “be yourself.” I heard variations on this theme – such as “Be authentic,” “Find your voice” or “Be true to yourself” – but they all expressed the same sentiment. It was eye-opening to see this mantra transcends geography and culture.
From a judge’s seat, I could discern which young ladies showed their authentic personalities from those who were acting more “managed.” I applaud every delegate who expressed her true self – whether it be through how she answered interview questions, her style choices or how she smiled. Even at a beauty pageant, what is on the inside still counts.
When I give motivational speeches, one of “Jimmy’s Ways to Win in Life” that I advocate is to be who you are so that people know the true you. I know that saying “be yourself” sounds corny. But I believe you can’t hear it often enough. Although it only takes two words to say, it can take years to master.
The need for authenticity rings especially true for me. As a child, I was acutely aware that I am an immigrant, a racial minority and gay. On their own, each of those traits signaled that I did not fit in; combined, they made me work overtime to conform to the other kids I saw in school and to images I saw in the media.
But one day, I woke up to the fact that who you are – your heritage, your race, your gender, your sexual orientation, everything about your identity – is what defines you and makes you unique. I once thought that being myself might be a detriment in my personal and professional life; but in fact, it has actually become one of my greatest assets. In my legal career, I stand out from other lawyers precisely because of my unique personality and distinctive background. Letting people know me also helped me forge stronger relationships with my clients, my friends and my family.
Of course, you can’t completely ignore societal expectations. To a certain extent, we must all play roles in life. And there’s always room for improvement, to be a better version of yourself. But don’t spend years trying to be someone else’s version of you.
It isn’t always easy. You will learn and must come to accept that every opportunity, every job, every victory is not meant for you. Most of the contestants in this year’s Miss Universe pageant did not advance to the semi-finals, and 88 of them did not win the crown. And fate tells us that was meant to be. But they can all win in life by being themselves.
While we all like to win, it’s better to approach life as your authentic self – rather than fitting into someone else’s mold purely to achieve an end result. Over time, you will end up with experiences that are meant to find you – whether it be the right college, career, romantic relationship, or even beauty pageant result.
Speaking of experiences meant to find someone, that is the perfect description for Brook Lee, the USA’s last winner of Miss Universe and someone who I am lucky to call my friend. Until last week, it had been 15 years since a Miss USA won the Miss Universe crown. That was in 1997, when Brook won by being exactly the same person she is today. She let her smart, refreshing, and funny personality shine through.
During the interview phases of competition, Brook didn’t give the same pat answers you might expect to hear from beauty queens. The final 3 contestants all received the same “Final Question”: If there were no rules in your life, for one day, and you could be outrageous, what would you do? To this day, her answer remains legendary to pageant fans. A lover of food despite pageant expectations, Brook replied: “I would eat everything in the world! You do not understand! I would eat everything…twice!” Being herself is what allowed Brook to stand out from the field and truly shine on stage.
With New Year’s around the corner, think about a resolution for 2013 to try more to reveal your authentic self. It’s a lesson not just from me, but also from some Miss Universe contestants. You will WIN in life if you just “Be yourself.”
Olivia Culpo/Miss Universe 2012 photo from Miss Universe web site.
Brook Lee photo courtesy of Brook Lee fan page on Facebook.