On the road to Miss South Carolina

The lobby at the Embassy Suites hotel on Greystone Boulevard smells slightly of hairspray. The entryway bustles with more than 100 well-groomed young women with one thing in common: they want to be Miss South Carolina or Miss South Carolina Teen.

Girls not yet old enough to drive walk around confidently in sky-high heels. Young women in matching crowns greet each other as old pals, with friendships forged from a history of competing side-by-side for the same titles.

Some newcomers introduce themselves compulsively, looking hungry to absorb every aspect of this new world. Others cautiously stick close to their local pageant directors, taking in the spectacle with a “What-did-I-get-myself-into?” expression barely concealed by a confident facade.

Latecomers rush into the hotel past countless SUVs with tiara decals and hot pink monograms. Trailers advertising pageant dress boutiques take up rows of parking spaces, and a mannequin in a glamorous white gown greets guests in the doorway, as to say “Welcome to pageant season.”

Crowned heads line up to enter the last local pageant of the year – but not before posing on the red carpet just outside the ballroom doors.

The local queens, donning crowns and sashes, convened in Columbia last month for the annual Miss South Carolina Workshop Weekend. Kicking it off was the last local pageant of the year. Dozens of crowned heads watched from the audience, waiting to see who would join their ranks.

This weekend in February marks the last of the local pageants – nicknamed the “Triple Crown,” as up to three titles for each age division can be awarded – but also the beginning of a long season for those local pageant winners, who will stand on stage at the Township Auditorium on June 27 in the Miss South Carolina pageant.

For some, the Triple Crown is the last chance to make the roster for the statewide pageant. Other women are just getting the first taste of the pageant world.

Alexandra DuBose, a Dreher High School senior, won the title of Miss River City; Charley Manley, a Greenwood High School junior, won Miss Midstate Teen; and MaKenzie Divina, a Wren High School junior, won Miss River City Teen. The three final crowns capped off classes of 52 Miss contestants and 65 Teen contestants, some of the largest state competition groups in the country.

DuBose, Manley and Divina didn’t have much time to celebrate their wins. The next two days were jam packed with events to prepare for the June competition. Contestants new and old chose their competition spots and listened to current Miss South Carolina Lanie Hudson, Miss South Carolina Teen Hope Harvard and Miss America 2009 Katie Stam Irk about what it takes to get what they’re all after: the crown and job of Miss South Carolina.

Half of this year’s Miss South Carolina contestants have competed before – some once, some up to four times – and haven’t taken the title.

It’s not that unusual.

In South Carolina, no rookie competitor has won since Shelley Bryson Benthall in 2006. Lanie Hudson and Brooke Mosteller, Miss South Carolinas 2014 and 2013, respectively, both won on their second try. All but one of the top five at last June’s pageant had competed at least once before. Ten of the top 16 had. So, does experience matter?

Kate McKinney came very close to a state crown on her first try. The 2014 University of South Carolina graduate and Denver, Colo., native was third runner-up at this year’s Miss Colorado pageant, her second ever. Now a full-time resident of Columbia and associate producer at South Carolina ETV Radio, she won the title of Miss Hilton Head Island, making her eligible for the Miss South Carolina title.

She is ready to tackle the Southern pageant world.

“Colorado is a more laid-back state in general, and it really showed at the pageant as well,” McKinney said. “Girls here hire people to do their hair and makeup for the pageant, and I don’t know anyone who didn’t do their own hair and makeup in Colorado.”

Workshop Weekend was her first major Miss South Carolina event. She “window shopped” at the “Queen for a Day Marketplace” at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center, where vendors from across the Southeast showed off their glitziest gowns, jewelry and other pageant essentials.

The weekend was also the first time McKinney and her fellow queens were together as a group. While being surrounded by 51 of your fellow competitors may seem intimidating, McKinney said it wasn’t so bad.

“You’re sitting there and you’re looking at your competition and you’re comparing yourself to them, like ‘I wish I had her hair...” McKinney said. “But it was actually really refreshing for me. I walked in there and I wasn’t so intimidated ... Everyone for the most part was so warm and welcoming.”

While McKinney is relatively new to the world of Southern pageantry, Lauren Cabaniss is an old pro.

Cabaniss, owner of a Boiling Springs dance studio and a 2013 USC graduate, is competing for her fifth and final time.

She’s placed in the top five contestants every year, including first runner-up placements in 2012 and 2014, but has yet to take home the crown. After this year’s pageant, she will be too old to compete for Miss South Carolina – “aging out” at 24, in pageant speak.

Since winning the local title of Miss Upstate, Cabaniss has been watching video of her past performances at Miss South Carolina to identify everything from makeup to talent technique that may need fine tuning for her last try at the title.

“It’s all about finding out what those strengths are, how to keep them, identifying weaknesses, working on them and eliminating as many as I can,” Cabaniss said.

Similarly, competing with many of the same women year in and year out gives Cabaniss a good idea of what she will be up against in June, she said. Three top five finishers, including Cabaniss, will return to the Miss South Carolina stage this year, and seven of last year’s top 16 will compete again.

“Some of my closest pageant friends are coming back this year, and some of them are my biggest competition,” Cabaniss said. “It makes it easier. Just like with football, they go in and watch reels of the games their opponents have played. It’s the same case here. It lets you know where their strengths and weaknesses lie. But at the end of the day, you have to worry about you and how you perform.”

Now, three months out from the crowning moment, is when Cabaniss, McKinney and the 50 other local queens are fine-tuning their performances. They’re homing in on their weaknesses – for McKinney, it’s Southern food; for Cabaniss, it’s getting in the right mindset.

They’ve got their gym regimens outlined, in search of that award-winning swimsuit physique. They’re on the hunt for the perfect dress, whether it come from one of the South’s extravagant pageant boutiques or custom designed by an evening gown god like Greenville’s Gregory Ellenburg. They’re practicing for the dreaded interview portion, brushing up on current events and working on speaking skills.

“I’ve got to stay at the top of my game and better myself,” Cabaniss said. “I’m changing up the game plan a bit this year, but mostly I’m focusing on staying focused.”

The road to Miss SC

How do contestants get to the stage for the Miss SC pageant?

As the pageant world mantra goes, “It all starts with a local.” Women competing in the Miss division are required to win a local pageant in order to compete for Miss South Carolina. This can be an official Miss South Carolina preliminary or a festival or school pageant. Teens can also compete for local, festival or school pageant titles, or they can pay to enter “at-large” without competing in a local pageant.

Local pageant season begins in September and ends in February, though the majority of local pageants are held in December, January and February.

Once you win a local title, you have to prepare. This entails working on physical fitness for the swimsuit competition – judges look for healthy, toned bodies, not visible ribs – honing your talent, perfecting that evening gown walk and preparing for the closed-door interview.

Many contestants employ trainers, coaches, public speaking specialists and others to help with each phase of preparation. Each phase of competition also has the demands of finding the perfect hair, makeup and outfit. Some shell out top dollar for custom evening gowns. Hair extensions are not uncommon.