Dual Crowns

August 2018 View more

As beauty pageants work to evolve into forums for female empowerment and gender equality, one local resident, 33-year-old Nicole Cook, doesn’t need to be convinced of the personal growth achieved through local and national competitions. The current Mrs. Illinois-America has been competing in pageants since she was a young child, when her mother saw it as a way for her to overcome shyness and showcase her talent for singing.

The pageantry movement started to change in the ’80s, when women saw [pageants] as an opportunity to empower themselves,” Cook says. “The movement encourages women and young girls to look to the future with open eyes. [Contestants] are role models for women. Women learn life skills like interviewing, public speaking, fitness and confidence. You can’t tell from a two-hour TV program, but that part is just one moment you may have worked up to your entire life.”

For the first time in a century, Miss America Organization leadership axed the swimsuit portion of its annual competition, instead putting emphasis on each contestant’s talents, passion and ambition in a live interactive session with judges. Currently the swimsuit portion of the Mrs. America competition—the pageant specifically for married women—remains, and it was never a challenge for Cook.

“It never bothered me on stage, but I think of it as a way to show off my fitness, and I think that’s important,” says the Geneva mother of two young boys. “It was never a problem for me and it makes me sad in a way, because it’s the end of a tradition. It’s still a show.”

Cook won the Illinois crown last November and is looking forward to representing Illinois at the Mrs. America pageant later this month. It’s the second time around for Cook, as she also won Mrs. Illinois in 2014. She placed third in that year’s national competition.

Competing for a cause
For Cook, one of the most important things about holding the title is the opportunity it gives her to be an advocate for a charity of her choice. She’s chosen to highlight the problems of opioid addiction, a cause which is sadly close to her heart.

“I lost my ex brother-in-law three months ago. He was 39 years old and left behind a 14-year-old and an 11-year-old,” she says. “The fact that Mrs. America recognizes Victoria’s Voice [a foundation started by Victoria Siegal’s family after the loss of their 18-year-daughter to opioids] is not a coincidence to me. I believe everything happens for a reason.”

Cook says most families who lose a loved one to opioid abuse have no idea about the severity of the problem in advance.

“The average victims are white males in their twenties; it’s very, very shocking,” she says. “Statistics show that the problem can start innocently by taking painkillers like Vicodin for the removal of a wisdom tooth, but this can lead to addiction and perhaps move up to heroin. The biggest percentage of victims don’t get drugs from drug dealers, but from their family or friends’ medicine cabinets. People need to be more aware of the signs. Sometimes it’s as simple as a lifestyle change, like a girl who is very put together who suddenly starts to pull back. Those are the signs that can point to drug addiction, that could lead to something worse.”

Mrs. America 2019
The national competition to crown the next Mrs. America will take place at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort and Casino on August 25. The pageant was established to honor married women throughout the U.S., with participants representing all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The contestants are state title holders in their 20s to 50s. The winner of the national title moves on to compete in the Mrs. World pageant.