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Lights, cameras and action — all three will feature on the national level tonight as 51 women from across the country compete to be named Miss USA 2021.

 The 70th edition of the Miss USA pageant airs on the FYI Network at 8 p.m. EST on Nov. 29. But the final broadcast is the culmination of a weekend of events in Tulsa, Oklahoma that showcase the 51 contestants and their home states.

Miss Kentucky USA, Elle Smith, has been preparing for the pageant for the last six months by working on her interview skills, physical fitness and confidence. For those interested in watching the pageant but unsure how the competition works, Smith and her coach Becky Minger have the answers.

Minger, once Miss Ohio America, has over 15 years of experience in the pageant industry and coaches eight contestants across four states for their national competitions. She said that the final broadcast is only a small portion of the entire competition.

"What a lot of people see on TV, that's a very small snapshot of everything that they've done to prepare to get there and the week that they've been there,” Minger said. “They go from photoshoots to appearances to rehearsals. They're up early, they are up late, and there's just a lot that goes into it.” 

The contestants arrive a week before the pageant; once they are in the host hotel, they are separated from their teams, families and coaches until the competition ends. Minger described the week before the Miss USA as high intensity, fast-paced and go-go-go. Along with filming segments of the show, contestants must learn specific choreography for the opening numbers and placements for camera shots.

The pageant begins three days before a winner is crowned; contestants participate in a preliminary show on Saturday, Nov. 26, and a state costume show on Nov. 28. The competition itself is broken down into three parts: swimsuit, evening gown and an interview with the judges.

What qualities are the judges are looking for? Minger had one answer.

 “Confidence, confidence, confidence,” Minger said. She believes true confidence comes when a woman truly knows herself and is unapologetically herself.

Contestants’ responses to the interview questions — which are always unknown and different for each woman — are filmed ahead of the final broadcast. Television audiences will only see a snapshot of the personal interview because the broadcast has to fit into around two hours.

For the interview, which lasts five minutes, the judges will refer to a profile of each contestant, who will aim to share their hobbies, goals, interests and plans for if they are chosen as Miss USA.

 Because of the short interview times, contestants have to prioritize and maximize their responses and lean heavily on the overall first impression they give to the judges.

“You want to be able to tell the judges your whole life story, right? Like you want to be able to stand there and talk to them for ever and ever. But it's really about picking those specific things that make you unique that you're extra passionate about and that you really want to take into your year as Miss USA,” Minger said.

Smith explained that the pageant is broken down into rounds. All 51 contestants participate in the preliminary round, which features swimsuit and evening gown, and is filmed ahead of the live broadcast. Those who continue into the top 15 repeat swimsuit and evening gown on stage and must also answer a topical question.

 “That's where that political debate comes in — they want to see your stance on highly politicized issues,” Smith said. The final five may be asked to give a personal statement onstage before winners are announced.

The topical question for the top 15 is also a surprise and happens live. According to Minger, topics may range from COVID-19 mandates to women’s empowerment to gun rights.

“Traditionally, every phase of competition is weighed equally so each score combines equally to make that that final score, which will take them from the preliminary competition, and then hopefully into that top 15,” Minger said. 

Contestants like Smith spend hundreds of hours preparing for the competition and have such a small amount of time in comparison to prove themselves.

 “That's actually very unique about the USA system and kind of exciting and special about it because truly it is about that first impression. And do you shine as an individual … do they seem natural? Do they seem authentic? And can they see you holding the title of Miss USA?” Minger said.

Miss USA is one of two national pageant systems. Miss America is the second, and both franchises have teen competitions as well. The pair have different elements to their competitions — Miss America has a talent portion while Miss USA does not; Miss USA has a swimsuit portion while Miss America does not.

This is because Miss USA, which began in reaction to Miss America, was founded by a swimwear company. Miss America is a nonprofit branded as a scholarship pageant while Miss USA has been owned by various corporations and is branded as a beauty pageant.

The two systems have different age ranges as well: 17 to 24 for Miss America and 18 to 27 for Miss USA.

A change in leadership for the Miss USA pageant has meant an adjustment for contestants like Smith. Newly-minted director Crystle Stewart said she wants the pageant to be a mix between a political debate, a UFC fight and a beauty pageant.

“As a contestant I’m like ‘what am I expected to be able to do?’ I think the only thing that I can work on is making sure I'm mentally prepared, I am able to convey myself eloquently and that that I look and feel my best,” Smith said.

According to Minger, the two greatest things a contestant can do to succeed in the interview are be educated and know their opinion.

“You want to hear them actually answer the question. You don't want to hear an answer that doesn't actually end up tackling what the question is. So if you are educated and you know your opinion, and you know how to speak respectfully to both sides, that's going to be the makings of a great answer,” Minger said. Empathy and the ability to respectfully take in a differing opinion are also signs of a strong contestant. 

This year’s Miss USA will almost immediately compete in Miss Universe, so there is an added element of the winner having a special quality the judges can see translating on the international level. But the judges also reward contestants who have enough confidence to know that winning (or losing) Miss USA does not define them or their future.

 “It will benefit me, it will absolutely define pieces of my future, but it doesn't define me as a person because I know who I am. I think the judges can see that in in a woman on stage when they're truly coming out with an authentic confidence and they truly know who they are and trust themselves,” Minger said. “I think that's really what sets people apart.”

The newly-crowned Miss USA, whoever she may be, will instantly become a brand ambassador, traveling the country and speaking at events and raising awareness for their chosen cause. But the very first order of business is representing the United States at the Miss Universe pageant in Israel.

 “Miss USA will be crowned and truly I think within 48 hours I think she's on a plane to Miss Universe,” Minger said.

The immediacy of the international competition lends an extra tension to this year’s national pageant. But as Minger pointed out, each of the 51 contestants was named their state titleholder for a reason and each would bring something unique to the role of Miss USA.

“Obviously I want to win this — every single person wants to win Miss USA — but I would be so happy if so-and-so won, like if anyone else won, I would be ecstatic for them because everyone is so qualified and so deserving. It's just who does USA want as Miss USA this year,” Smith said.

Smith, 23, said her experiences with the other contestants have been nothing but supportive and encouraging. 

“A lot of stereotypes are the people thinking that the gals are not nice to each other or whatever,” Minger said. “That is not the case at all. I think it's again a very uplifting atmosphere for all of them because it's an honor to be there.”

Minger, who owns an independent pageant consulting firm, is also a professional makeup artist. She has worked backstage at Miss USA several times before, which helps her advise her clients. For a live broadcast like Miss USA, Minger said that final looks should use products formulated for high light situations that account for flash photography and spotlights.

The telecast happens so fast that there is almost no time to change a look beyond putting hair up or down; contestants must also reset their position in front of a camera between breaks. All of the contestants must learn the stage positioning for advancing into the final rounds or winning the national title so that they are prepared if their name is called as Miss USA.

“Once you get the call, I mean, your brain just … freaks out. It's just like, ‘oh my gosh.’ The adrenaline is so high on live television," Minger said. "This is such a dream for so many women. And tensions are high, nerves are high and excitement is high and so you really got to be present and be paying attention so you know exactly what to do."

Even for the contestants who do not win the national crown, being a state titleholder is an incredible privilege.

 “It’s so much fun as a contestant, but also, it just puts it into perspective what an honor it is to wear your state across your chest and represent your state and your people and your hometown, your home state, and just knowing that people are kind of rallied around you is really super special,” Minger said. The 51 contestants will wear their sashes everywhere they go during the week leading up to the pageant.

When Minger competed at Miss America in Las Vegas, she noticed that hotel guests cheered when they caught sight of their state’s representative.

 “I think that's something really fun when you watch pageants. I think everybody just gets so excited because they'll see their state and they like see their girl and they're like rooting for their state and that was something really fun,” Minger said.

Kentuckians can root for Elle Smith, who won Miss Kentucky in May. Smith is stationed in Louisville as a multimedia journalist for WHAS-11. Miss USA will be only her second pageant ever as she represents the Commonwealth. Watch Smith take the stage against the other 50 contestants at 8 p.m. on Nov. 29, livestreamed on Hulu and broadcast on the FYI Network.