I had to ask Miss Virginia 2019 the same question in three different ways before I finally got it: Miss America is not a beauty contest anymore.
At the top of the list of attributes that were used to determine the titleholder for this year were “exceptional communication skills and grammar.” There are no physical requirements for candidates assures Camille Schrier, who was crowned Miss Virginia 2019 on June 22. Self-described as a “woman of science,” the Pennsylvania native and VCU doctoral of pharmacy student impressed the judges by choosing to conduct an experiment onstage for the talent portion of the competition.
From breaking racial barriers to phasing out the swimsuit part of the contest this year, Miss America is making big changes. As I followed Miss America’s evolution since it started in 1921, I see it as an organization that mirrors the ideas held by women in every period in history, and this is why I ask: Does Miss America want to be relevant to the women who witnessed the Me Too movement, the Women’s March and Black Lives Matter?
Let’s hear from Miss Virginia 2019; during our phone conversation, we discussed her new role, the opioid crisis, overdose reversal medication, the inspiration behind her love for science and even the fairies and angels who helped her make it! (The conversation was edited for brevity.)
First of all, congratulations on your big win as Miss Virginia 2019.
SCHRIER: Thank you.
Virginia has been treating you really well.
SCHRIER: Yes, absolutely. I'm very blessed.
You stopped participating in beauty contests at age 18. Now you are a doctoral student. Was it beauty that attracted you to the competition?
SCHRIER: No, not for me. I think that that was part of the reason that I stopped competing. When I was 18 years old, I was going through a lot personally, and for me it was putting too much pressure on my outward appearance than what I wanted, and I stopped it because it no longer was benefiting me. I thought that I needed something and I was looking for something that would further my life, and so I focused on my education, and now that this organization has taken away that physical aspect, it gave me an opportunity to come back and not have to worry about that so much.
I am a woman. I do like to get dressed up, and go to events, and do my hair and makeup. That's something that I enjoy doing personally, but it's so much more than that now. And you might be the most beautiful woman on the stage per se, but if you're not able to communicate and handle yourself and present yourself in a way that's confident and eloquent and intelligent, you're not going to succeed in this type of an organization, so it's so much more than what you look like.
But still, Miss America or Miss Virginia in my mind means beauty somehow. It's just part of the contest, isn't it?
SCHRIER: It is not anymore.
Not at all? Okay.
SCHRIER: I'm working to redefine that stereotype, and that's really my biggest goal of this year, is to redefine what people think of this organization. It is not a beauty pageant anymore, and it is so much more than that. It's a competition for young women who are looking for scholarship money. I won $21,000 toward my higher education this weekend alone, and our organization gave out $75,000 worth of scholarship money for young women just this weekend. It is so much more than just being a pageant. My goal this year is to be able to work to redefine that for people and show them who Miss Virginia really is in 2019.
You described yourself as a woman of science. What inspired your love for science?
SCHRIER: It was something that I always loved, truly. It was something...when I look back to my childhood, I always loved being outdoors, and I loved nature, and I think that that was how I started loving science. Once I entered my education and really started taking serious science classes in high school, it only solidified what I had already known, that science was something that I inherently loved, and it was just really a matter of what type of science I wanted to pursue in college and beyond.
I love biology and I love chemistry, so I ended up deciding to be biochemistry major at Virginia Tech. I also have a degree in systems biology, which is a computational biology and mathematical modeling degree. So for me, I was really excited to be able to pursue that at a higher level. There's not a point in time that I say, "Oh, this is when I really decided that I loved science." It was always something I loved, and so it wasn't really a question. It was just a matter of what I would do with it.
I mean … no teacher or parent inspired you?
SCHRIER: I did have an eighth grade science teacher who had us read a book called “The Hot Zone,” which sparked my interest in biology even more, so she would probably be the teacher that I would name, if I were to look back and say an inspirational science teacher that I did have. My mom is a nurse, too, so in terms of the medical field and wanting to pursue something medical related, I can kind of attribute that to her.
You chose to demonstrate the catalytic decomposition of hydrogen peroxide onstage. Why did you choose that specific experiment?
SCHRIER: Yes. I chose that because, first of all, it was safe to do in a group and in a room. I knew it wouldn't catch fire or explode, so I wanted to do something that was safe, but I also wanted to do something that I knew would be really awesome, like awe-ensuing for the audience, and have a really big visual component. I wanted it to be big, so that everyone in the back of the auditorium could see my reaction. It wasn't just something small, and I knew that I could amp that reaction up pretty high so that it would shoot pretty far out of my beakers. So that was something I knew I could taper pretty well, but I know that it's something that gets kids excited, and I wanted to have an experiment as my talent that I could show the judges that I could bring into any school across the Commonwealth of Virginia, and that this was designed for kids to get interested in STEM. And that was really why I did it.
That experiment is easy to do. It's safe, and it's pretty nontoxic, so it was something that I really could put in my car with me, and as I'm traveling the state, go around and demonstrate to kids at elementary schools and middle schools and high schools to get them interested in STEM. And so that was really my purpose in doing it.
What was the moment you decided or you thought, "I want to do an experiment for the talent portion of the contest"?
SCHRIER: I, in March, decided to compete in a local competition for the Miss Virginia organization, and it was something I'd wanted to do for a long time, but hadn't done it because the timing hadn't been right. I was really focused on school, and this one, the timing worked out. I had always thought that I could not compete in the Miss Virginia organization because I didn't have a talent, so my mom looked at me and said, "You have a lot of talents. You're a very talented person. You just don't happen to have a talent that can be performed onstage."
So, I'm kind of one of those people that if you tell me I can't do something, I'm going to find a way to do it. So I said, "Okay. Well, you know what? I'm talented in science. That's what I do for my career. Maybe I can find a way to incorporate this into my performing talent." And so, I had always seen that experiment being performed, and so when I discussed competing with my mom and we decided, we were like, "How about we do this?" Because I wanted to do something different and something that was authentically myself.
If I had gone up there and prepared a dance or a song, which I could have done, it just wouldn't have been authentically me, and it wouldn't have been a representation of the woman that I am. So I decided that, you know, it's a risk. It was definitely not a safe choice to use that, because it's not something traditional, but it was who I was, and I was confident with the fact that if it didn't go well and they didn't like it, that I had showed them exactly who I was as a person.
Wow. I'm sure it is. Tell me more about that moment when you were talking to your mom. Was it in your home? Were you eating breakfast, lunch?
SCHRIER: We were here in my apartment in Richmond, and I'm in a little two bedroom apartment that I use for my graduate school, and so my mom was here visiting, and I kind of sprung this on her without a lot of preparation back in April, and I had decided to do it on a whim. I borrowed clothing for my local. I prepared my reaction here in my apartment complex, in the driveway, and practiced it, and had to hose it down in our carport, so it was a lot of practice and preparation very quickly, but everything fell into place really well this entire time, and it's been kind of uncanny how well everything has worked out for me. Everything has kind of gone right.
Yeah. I feel sometimes that when we are on our path for success, we feel like there are angels or fairies guiding us.
SCHRIER: Yeah. True.
Did you feel it all the time? Was everything going smoothly?
SCHRIER: Yeah. We're Christians, and my mom kept saying that she felt that God was leading us down a path, that this was planned for me. I can feel that. It's funny, but sometimes I'm one of those people that typically gets very unlucky. Everything here has worked out perfectly, and little things have helped make this entire experience successful … I decided to take an extra dress to the tailor about three days before I left for Miss Virginia, and just on a whim, because I needed to get something else hemmed, and I went in and I realized that we had the wrong date to pick up all my clothing, and so I basically averted the largest crisis ever, which would have been that all of my wardrobe wasn't ready for me the day I had to leave.
But for some reason, I was led to go over there and check on my clothing and bring another piece of clothing there, and some little things like that, just making sure that things arrive on time and that I can get them. I mean, we're ordering a lot because I'm here in Richmond, and my mom's at home in Pennsylvania. I'm actually from Pennsylvania originally, so my parents are located outside of Philadelphia. My mom and dad had been down here helping me, so as far as, you know, just making sure that things are coming on time and that the logistics work out, but everything worked out in a way that was very uncanny and felt like a divine intervention, truly. I'm grateful. I mean, it almost seemed like every single piece of the puzzle fell into place the way it should.
That's great. I know that one of your biggest goals and roles as Miss Virginia 2019 is to educate the public about the opioid crisis and opioid overdose reversal medication. Tell us more, please.
SCHRIER: About that particularly, I'm again, a pharmacy student, so I've seen, throughout my personal life, I've had friends that have had children and siblings that are addicted to opioid medications, and it's a huge problem in our country. It's more than just people that are abusing opioids. There's a huge problem with people that are prescribed opioid medications and end up in overdose situations, or are prescribed opioids and end up addicted to them because they're overprescribed, truly, in our country. So I think that as someone who has a background in pharmacy and in medicine, I'm able to make a difference and make people aware of this, and hopefully change the stigma about opioid addiction in this country away from being something that's kind of taboo to talk about, but to really talk about how this happens, what it looks like, and how we can help people get away from this.
I know that people have a perception of Narcan and naloxone as, "that's the opioid reversal medication," or, "the overdose reversal medication." People have a perception of that as being something that's only used for people that are drug addicts, and it's so untrue. If you have any family member or friend who's taking an opioid medication, it's so important for you to be able to know how to use Narcan in case that person gets into an overdose situation, especially elderly people, who sometimes are forgetful and can take another dose of it. If they're on oral opioid, they forget and they take another one, and they're in an overdose situation very quickly.
It's so much more than drug addiction, but there is that aspect, and as someone who's been able to see people who are addicted to opioid medications, I feel like it's time to talk about that. And again, it’s a little bit untraditional to have someone like Miss Virginia talking about drug addiction and talking about opioids, but again, I hope to show people that Miss Virginia really has a greater platform than just hair and makeup, that I can talk about serious things that are happening right here in Virginia. So, I'm hoping that I can really make an impact in terms of opioid abuse here in Virginia in the next year.
I wanted to ask you earlier about one aspect of the contest, which is the swimming suit competition. I know they phased it out this year. How does it make girls or women feel?
SCHRIER: I am so excited that we got rid of this swimsuit competition, I'll tell you that. It was one of the things that held me back from competing in this organization until this year. I am a woman who's fit. I workout, but I feel no desire or need to get onstage in a swimsuit, and for me, throughout the other phases of the competition, I know I'm going to be going into an interview situation when I'm hoping to get a job in a corporation. I might have to present myself in an evening gown eloquently at a gala maybe one day if I'm a corporate executive, but I sure will not be walking into an interview in a swimsuit any day that I know of.
But how does it make you feel as a woman? I feel that we don't talk a lot about this.
SCHRIER: It's hard for me to say because I've never competed in a swimsuit, so it's not something that I've ever had the experience of doing. For me, the only thing I can tell you is that for me it was not something that I ever desired to do.
But you competed before when you were in high school, right?
SCHRIER: I never competed in a swimsuit.
SCHRIER: I competed in smaller organizations as a teenager, and I always chose organizations where there was not a swimsuit competition, because I didn't want to do it.
Is there a name for this feeling? I just want people to be aware of how ... sometimes there is a kind of pressure.
SCHRIER: I would say I can imagine that women feel pressure when they compete in a swimsuit, but I do know, and I'm not speaking from personal experience, but from what I've heard from others, some women find it empowering, truly, to be able to go out there and compete in a swimsuit, but others--
… It might follow two different paths, but it’s not something that I've ever personally experienced.
Thank you. My last question is: I know from your Instagram account that you are a mom of cats...
SCHRIER: Yes, I am.
… So, what are your views on love, marriage and motherhood?
SCHRIER: Motherhood is difficult, because I'm a mother of cats, but I will tell you that I think that love, specifically, is something that has to be personal for you, and it has to be a good fit for you. I know I have two parents who are in a great marriage, and I grew up with a really great example of working together and communicating, and I think that that's the biggest thing in terms of marriage that I would say is important. I'm not married and I'm not anywhere near being married, so it's difficult for me to talk from a personal experience. But in terms of motherhood, I know that I grew up with an awesome mom, and so, she was always supportive of everything that I did, but also guiding, and she's helped shape me into being the successful person that I am today, and she's taught me a lot about presenting myself and interviewing, and how to be successful both in the corporate world, and also in these types of competitions. She's helped me very much in my preparation. I hope that I can do the same for my daughter one day.
After all of this discussion, I still have a valid question: If beauty is out of the equation, what is left to distinguish Miss America? Slate staff writer Christina Cauterucci explains in her article “Even Without the Swimsuit Competition, Miss America is Indefensible”: “There’s already a name for a competition where women compete against one another to prove their passion, ambition, intelligence, talent and love for America: It’s called an election.”