As a little girl, I used to watch the women in the Miss America pageant with their sequined ball gowns and gleaming white teeth on my TV set with a sense of awe. They were beautiful and glamorous and elegant and amazing.
And then, there was Miss North Dakota.
Don’t get me wrong, the contestants who’ve represented my modest Midwestern state over the years have certainly been lovely creatures in their own rights, I’m sure. But when we tuned in to watch the pageant, we knew we’d see our delegate give her five-second introduction during the opening number—then disappear into a sea of sashes for the remainder of the competition. We’d get excited when we spotted her in the background: “Oh look! I think that’s her standing behind Texas!”
Of course, we’d loyally hold our breath and cross our fingers when the first round of finalists was announced, but we knew North Dakota was never going to put on that swimsuit.
But this year, the stars aligned in some parallel universe and Miss North Dakota not only wore the dang swimsuit, Bismarck, ND native Cara Mund won the whole shebang.
(My 10-year-old self is bouncing off the walls and whooping in thrilled disbelief in that parallel universe, no doubt.)
I watched the broadcast last night from my living room in North Dakota. As is standard in the age of social media, there was an ongoing discussion on Facebook as Mund’s history-making run unfolded in Atlantic City. “Miss North Dakota is in the top 12, THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” My newsfeed was peppered with similar statuses; we thirty-something girls who’d grown up watching these pageants with the understanding that California or Texas or Florida had it in the bag were just happy to finally hear our state called as part of the top tier of tiara-seekers. That alone would get us through at least another two decades.
But then, Miss North Dakota made top 10. Then top seven. And we collectively freaked out. Was she really going to win this thing?
I’m going to let you in on a little secret about those of us who live in flyover country: we coexist with a little bit of an inferiority complex in this great nation of ours. And honestly, we mostly like it that way, because our states and cities and towns that have more grain bins and corn fields than buildings over five stories and people? They’re some of the best places to raise a family.
But secretly, we harbor a sliver of nagging desire to capture a piece of the bright lights and big city life and hold it in our hands for a moment, just to feel the shape and weight of it. It’s why when someone makes it big from a state like North Dakota, we puff up with pride, why we North Dakotans have seen every Josh Duhamel movie, why we cheer for Carson Wentz’s Philadelphia Eagles even though we love the Minnesota Vikings. We’re happy with our comfortable, average lives, but we love to wiggle our toes in the green grass of the other side once in a while.
While the kids were having breakfast this morning, I played the final ten minutes of the pageant for them. My 9-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son watched with bated breath. When the field was whittled to two—Missouri and North Dakota—they stopped chewing.
As Miss North Dakota was named the new Miss America, their mouths fell open in unison. My son pumped his fist in the air and my daughter looked at me with sparkling eyes, “She won!”
I know a state like North Dakota or Nebraska taking the Miss America crown doesn’t last in the headlines long, and that’s fine. We’re used to it. But when we see Midwestern kids with humble roots like Cara Mund lasso their dreams and shatter expectations, we savor it just a little bit more. Maybe it allays that small fear of insignificance we carry and often unwittingly pass on to our children, maybe it makes us a tiny bit smug when we finally best California at something—but no matter what, it makes us incredibly proud to be from America’s heartland.
Congratulations to Miss America 2018 Cara Mund!
— Miss America Org (@MissAmericaOrg) September 11, 2017
— Nia Franklin (@MissAmerica) September 11, 2017