Printed on: October 04, 2012

Your best foot forward

By Christina Lords

Driggs resident Mady Dalley has taken her fair share of good-natured ribbing from friends and family.

As a participant in this year's state Distinguished Young Women competition, she gets questions about why she's "a contestant in a beauty pageant."

"I'm not super girly, but I really enjoy doing this," she said. "I actually had a friend of mine come home from college and say, 'I never expected that from you ... I never thought you'd be the one walking around in heels.'"

For Dalley and 35 other girls taking the stage for the three-day competition, which begins at 7 p.m. today in the Civic Auditorium, this is no beauty pageant.

After meeting their host families Saturday, the girls spent most of their time practicing, interviewing and doing community service for 12 hours a day all week.

The competition represents camaraderie, confidence and, perhaps more importantly, a shot at college, Dalley said.

In June, the state competition winner advances to the 56th annual national finals in Mobile, Ala. Competitors will share more than $130,000 in scholarships.

State program director Darady Van Orden said the program constantly fights the beauty pageant stereotype. Van Orden has been involved with the program, formerly Junior Miss, for 20 years.

"The scoring system has changed a little bit, but the categories are all the same," she said. "The main thing is we don't want to be viewed as a beauty pageant. Beauty is not even listed as a category."

Girls are judged in five categories: scholastics, interview, talent, fitness and self-expression.

The scholastics category accounts for 20 percent of the overall score. The interview and talent portions each account for another 25 percent of the overall score. Finally, the fitness and self-expression categories each account for 15 percent.

Blackfoot participant Heidi Dreher said she's competing to improve her self-confidence and earn money for a medical degree.

"This all comes down to our commitment to push ourselves," she said. "We've worked really hard. I think that shows through."

The girls practice fitness and opening routines for hours at a time.

"The social aspect of this program is the best part," Bonneville County participant Natalie Stoker said. "When you hit four hours of fitness practice, you get a little tired -- four hours and the 500 bruises that go along with that."

Stoker decided to participate after watching a former winner talk about the program's Be Your Best Self campaign.

"It's very competitive, especially at the state level," she said. "They got here for a reason because of who they are."

Van Orden said there's value in networking at both the state and national levels. Many girls become roommates in college or colleagues later in life.

"The networking opportunity is huge," she said. "We live in a Facebook world, you go home and you friend everybody. So when you need a job back east in Mississippi, you know a girl to help you there. Need to move to New York City? You've already met someone."

The competition prepares girls to handle real-life problems that await them after graduation, Van Orden said.

"This is about who you are and what you do with yourself," she said. "There's a certain level of professionalism to what we do here. Some people think they're running around in long princess gowns and that's it.

"They aren't Cinderella. They're professional, well-spoken girls ... who are encouraged and want to go to college. Some of them are going to go on to do really great things."