Miss Los Angeles County: My Rita Story

IMG_2312-2            Hello, everyone! First off, let me start by introducing myself. I am Jillian Smith, Miss Los Angeles County 2015. I am so excited to share with all of you about how I got my start competing in the Miss America Organization.

I am one of seven granddaughters (no grandsons), and all of us have competed in a Miss America affiliated pageant at least once. I am the second youngest, so I have grown up with this organization since I was five years old. That’s really where my story starts.

When I was five, my oldest cousin was competing for the title of Miss California 2000. For anyone who hasn’t attended the Miss California Pageant, let me paint a little picture for you. Miss California is a week long in Fresno, and it’s essentially the same show every night, but with different girls competing in different areas of competition. While it’s my favorite week of the year now, I’m sure you can imagine how bored a little five year old girl could be by the end of the week. Not to mention, I was going through somewhat of a tomboy stage and would have much rather been pretending to be an NBA star than wearing pretty dresses and watching a week long pageant.

I don’t remember much of that week, except for the finals night. I remember there being a different feeling in the crowd. The finalists were going to be announced onstage and everyone was nervous for their favorite contestant, which made me nervous for my cousin (even though I had mentally checked out three days before and I didn’t really understand what was going on).

Unfortunately, my cousin didn’t make the finals. For me, that meant my brain had turned off for the rest of the show and I just had to try to behave. The phases of competition thereafter are completely gone from my memory. I must have fallen asleep or something. But then the talent portion started, and like I said, while I don’t remember most of that week, I will never forget the moment that, at the risk of sounding like a giant cliche, changed my life forever.

piano3            Rita Ng began to play the piano. I instantly perked up in my seat and fell in love. I remember whispering to my mom, “I want to be just like Rita!” Later that night, Rita went on to win Miss California, and I could not have been more excited.

For weeks after, I pestered my mom about finding me a piano teacher, and eventually I broke her. I started off by learning the recorder, and when I was six I started playing piano. I excelled pretty quickly and completely fell in love with the instrument.

Fast forward a couple years to 2011. When I was 16, I won my first local title with the Miss America Organization and competed at Miss California’s Outstanding Teen as Miss Sacramento County’s Outstanding Teen. But here’s the kicker. As it turns out, one of the judges for the Miss contestants that year was none other than Miss California 2000, Rita Ng.

piano1           During my months of preparing for Miss California’s Outstanding Teen, I made some friends in the organization and told them why I decided to participate; my “Rita Story,” if you will. Well, once it was announced who the judges were, I was promised that I would have the opportunity to meet Rita at the Gala at the end of the week. Little did I know, the wonderful Tony Moises had already spoken with Rita and told her my “Rita Story.”

On the last day of teen competition, I was announced as one of the top ten finalists. By the end of the week, the theater is pretty packed with people, but when I went on to play my talent that night, I was more nervous playing in front of Rita than I was the entire theater full of people. I don’t think I took my eyes off of her for a second as I was walking off stage afterwards.

Finally, the night of the Gala arrived. Yes, I was obviously excited to find out who our new Miss California would be, but I was more looking forward to meeting the person who had influenced me at such a young age without even realizing it.

Rita            Remember how I said that Tony Moises had let Rita in on my story without my knowledge? Well my plan was to introduce myself and tell her my “Rita Story,” but it’s a good thing she already knew because I would not have been able to get the words out. My field director at the time, Donna Jones, pulled me aside and walked with me to introduce me to Rita. She tapped on her shoulder and as soon as she turned around, I broke down in tears (which is why my face is so splotchy and red in the picture) and gave her a hug without saying a word. She laughed and said, “Well you must be Jillian.” I felt like I was meeting a celebrity. Totally starstruck. We added each other on Facebook a few weeks later, and found out we have the same birthday, which was really exciting for me.

When I was applying to colleges, I applied as a music major. After deciding to attend Cal Poly, I took a writing class my first quarter and had the opportunity to interview Rita about the Miss America Organization and write a paper about it, which my professor later had published in the annual Cal Poly Student Textbook and suggested I look into Journalism. Now, I am a Journalism major working towards a minor in music.

I know from personal experience how much a person can influence someone without even realizing it. Music has become such a huge part of my life, and who knows if I would have ever tapped into that had I not seen Rita perform 15 years ago. I am more grateful for this organization than I could ever put into words.

And as a side note for any of my fellow contestants that read this, keep my “Rita Story” in mind whenever you’re onstage. You never know what little girl is out in the audience falling in love with you.


Miss Los Angeles County 2015, Jillian Smith