Female veterans vie for the title of Ms. Veteran America
Clad in black Lululemon leggings, a T-shirt with her name across the back, and Asics sneakers, Leanne Babcock, 35, charged into the pageant audition room last May and ordered the five judges to get down and give her 60.
Had she been competing for the Miss America title, teaching a CrossFit class as her talent might have been viewed quite unseemly. But as a contestant for the Ms. Veteran America competition, it just might win Babcock that crown.
The judges didn’t actually do the team workout (a total of 300 push-ups, 200 sit-ups and 2,400–meter run for the group), but Babcock’s demonstration at least impressed them enough for her to snag one of the 25 semi-finalist spots for the national competition, which will be held in October in Washington, D.C. The California resident was among the hundreds of women to audition last spring at one of two regional competitions — one on each coast. Contestants could also audition by submitting a video.
At the final competition, Babcock will stand on stage in an evening dress alongside the two dozen other women veterans, as the judges announce the winner. The woman they name will be decorated with a sash, a sparkling tiara, and a $15,000 prize to be used toward schooling or loan repayment.
She’ll also have some responsibilities, including spending the next year promoting the competition and the cause it benefits: Final Salute, a nonprofit that provides housing assistance to homeless female veterans.
Women who served in the military make up the fastest-growing homeless population, and they are two to three times more likely to become homeless than civilian women, according to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans. More than 55,000 female veterans are living on the streets, Final Salute reports.
Contestants from the previous five years have varied in body size, mobility — some have been amputees — and even age. A 2012 contestant, WWII-era Coast Guard veteran Gladys Hughes, competed at 89 years old.
But the judges aren’t looking for Miss Congeniality. Instead of modeling swimsuits and wishing for world peace, the contestants earn points by performing pushups, answering questions about military history, showcasing a talent and demonstrating poise and confidence.
Last year’s winner, Molly Mae Potter, took to YouTube to convince hestitant would-be applicants that this is not a typical pageant.
“I’m by no means a beauty queen,” Potter said in the video, labeled “Why you should run for #MVA2017.” In it, the reigning champion dons a casual look, wearing her hair down and dressed in a black hoodie that reads “Served Like a Girl,” referencing the name of a documentary about the 2015 competition. “Not one iota of your score to become Ms. Veteran America depends on your looks.”
For some contestants, the cause behind the competition is one that hits close to home and motivated them to sign up. At 15 years old, Tyierra Wilson, 27, lost her childhood apartment in New Orleans when it was flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. She took shelter at the Superdome, an experience she calls, “the scariest time of my life.” All she has to remember the place where she grew up is one picture of her ravaged bedroom taken by a family member after the storm and a medal she earned in the fourth grade.
She said joining the Navy saved her.
“I was dirty, I was homeless. I felt like I wasn’t needed,” she said. “When I joined the military, there were women around me constantly. They molded me, they took care of me.”
Babcock, who did the CrossFit demonstration, also struggled with homelessness from the time she was a toddler until she was 12. Her father was a drug addict and was violent toward her mother, she said. She and her mother escaped their house in Oregon, she says, but they were forced to move frequently as her father repeatedly tracked them down.
As an adult, Babcock joined the Air Force, where 14 years later, she still works both full-time in a civilian capacity and once a month as a reservist. She tried out for Ms. Veteran America when she saw the video posted by Potter, a friend of hers, and realized it would be a way to help homeless veterans.
“[The competition] says we can rise up above that,” she said.
Wilson said the competition would allow her to give back by helping women who are struggling in silence — like she once did.
“It’s my turn to step up,” she said. “I’m going to be there because I wish someone would have picked me up. Nobody should be left behind.”
The competition is fierce, and the contestants have a lot of preparing to do. In August, Babcock and Wilson were both reading up on military history and fine-tuning their performances.
Babcock said she’s not looking forward to the pushup competition. As a CrossFit instructor, calisthenics are not her forte.
“If you want me to deadlift 220 pounds, that’s a different story,” she said.
Wilson is working on perfecting her talent performance, a spoken-word piece she wrote called “Strong.”
“I’ve been in an abusive relationship. I’ve been in the military,” she said, explaining why she was inspired to write the piece. “All of those things have made me who I am. [They] made me strong.”
She said she hopes her performance will show her four-year-old son, Ja’Mauri K, that she’s tough in spite of her past and what others might think.
“Just because I am a girl does not mean I am the weaker sex,” she said.
She also gets to have a little fun with the competition, as she did selecting a dress for the interview portion, for which the contestants wear evening gowns.
“I’m that girl who has to buy 12 dresses,” she said lauging.
With just under two months to go, Wilson hasn’t settled on one just yet but is eyeing a gown that she describes as “elegant” with a hue that is more “watermelon” than “six-year-old pink.”
Babcock, who said she also enjoys dressing up, pointed out that sometimes people forget that female veterans are still women.
“It’s the superman effect,” she said.
But by including the dresses and tiaras, the competition does in some ways resemble a traditional pageant, and not everyone is comfortable with that. Some critics have pointed to the sexism many say is promoted by the pageant industry in general. They bristle at the idea of military women, who have already fought sexism and even sexual assault in the armed forces, perpetuating the objectification of women.
“I respect anything that makes women veterans who participate feel more visible and empowered,” says Kristen Rouse, founder of the NYC Veteran’s Alliance. “But as a personal response, I wonder how much the pageant circuit has done to empower women/girls generally, or women veterans specifically.”
In her video address, Potter said the competition is more about showcasing the community of veterans as individual women outside of the uniform.
“We are a bunch of beautiful woman that happened to have served in uniform but we didn’t get judged on beauty,” she said. “I stood on stage as a finalist with 25 amazing woman who were grandmothers, some of them were actually pregnant, they were moms, they had battle scars literally, and we have all these ranges of talents.”
Wilson sees the aesthetic part of the competition as a bonus for everything else she and her colleagues have accomplished in their careers.
“This is the best part about being a woman — that you can lift as much as a guy, that you can drive like a guy, that you can make as much money,” she said, before echoing the famous Ginger Rogers line. “I can do all of this, and I can wear heels.”