It is no secret that Miss America contestants pride themselves on being the “best of the best” among the young women of this nation. As a young lady who has grown up in this program, I never cease to be blown away by the remarkable women that share my same dream. Ostensibly, it may appear that the women who participate in this program are “perfect;” competitors are talented, fit, accomplished, and beautiful. Yet, what people cannot see are the real life disappointments these girls experience. I am no exception to encountering failure and self-defeat. It is in my triumphs that I reflect on the importance of overcoming these obstacles.
As many of you will come to know, playing piano has become an integral part of my identity. However, when I was little, becoming a pianist was down at the bottom of my “what I want to be when I grow up” list. Clay Aiken, the first runner up of season 2 on American Idol, sparked my passion for singing. Despite my readiness to grab a microphone to belt my voice out at family weddings and make-believe concerts, my mother became incredibly quick to tell me, “Natalie, you can’t sing. God did not bless you with a pretty voice.” (A little disclaimer: thank you to my mom who has provided me with nothing but honesty and wisdom. I am truly grateful to have a parent who does not feel the need to sugarcoat my weaknesses). At such a young age, her words only ignited a fire in my belly to prove her wrong. Over the course of the next 5-6 years, I auditioned to sing the national anthem for two major sporting teams in my home town. I never received one call back. It was when I was 12 that I truly discovered singing was not meant for me. Each year of my childhood, I entered a talent show to showcase another year of piano lessons under my belt. About four weeks prior to the show, I broke my hand playing Marco-Polo on a trampoline by tumbling off the edge and landing in a cactus. (What’s even more pathetic is I was not the one with my eyes closed). No longer able to perform at the piano due to my cast, I knew this would be the perfect opportunity to showcase my voice and prove my mom wrong. Then, to my utmost surprise, I lost. I was devastated. When I walked off stage in a state of despair, my mom showed me the video of my performance she secretly recorded. I was terrible. I could not even listen to my entire song without cringing. Following that experience, I became more determined than ever to become a great pianist.
While discovering I would never make it to the American Idol stage became the pitfall of my twelve-year-old self, it never occurred to me that many more of my dreams would be denied. For instance, I was named first-runner up two years in a row competing at the Outstanding Teen level, I lost the election to become my high school’s Student Body President, and despite years of tutoring and visiting with educational specialists, I could not get an ACT score that was considered high enough to get into the school of my dreams.
Preparing to take a standardized test was a particularly hard time in my life. I attended a private high school surrounded by brilliant students who could get a near perfect score on the ACT or the SAT without preparing or studying. Yet, here I was with a great resume, a respectable GPA, and one test score that could prevent me from attending my first choice school. My family hired a tutor for me, I took online courses, and I met with counselors to help relieve the stress I felt prior to taking these tests. Over the course of 9 months and three ACT tests, I only improved my overall score by 1 point, still far short of what I needed to have a good chance of being accepted into the university of my choice. I knew that this one weakness had the power to prevent me from achieving my dreams, so I worked every other angle I could to receive an acceptance letter. I arranged interviews, took a private tour of the school, spoke to members on the board, and wrote more ‘Thank You’ notes than I can remember to prove to this school I was more than a test-score. I remember waking up from a nap on my couch in March of 2015 to an email from Chapman University. I had been accepted and was awarded the Presidential Scholarship, the highest awarded scholarship Chapman grants. The school had given me a chance to prove myself as a student and as an achiever. My mom and I looked at each other and simply cried. I am hopeful I can continue to make my school proud.
So far you have read about some of my more poignant failures over the course of my life, and you may even be wondering what this has to do with Miss America. The answer? Everything. If I had not come to realize on my own that I could not sing, well, let’s say I would not have been awarded the title of Miss Orange Coast this year. Singing allowed me to see where my talents truly lied. And hey, at least I got my “American Idol moment” performing for a huge crowd in a fringe jumpsuit and a bedazzled hot pink arm cast. Additionally, if I had gotten a notable score on my ACT test, I would have lost the lesson of what it means to break stereotypes and persevere when the odds are stacked against me. I am a living testament that anything is possible so long as you work hard and believe in yourself (cheesy I know). As far as being named first runner-up twice at the ‘Teen’ level and now once at the ‘Miss’ level, I have learned that timing is everything. Sometimes you can do all the right things and say everything that needs to be said, and you still will not be selected. Sometimes, it is just another young lady’s time. I encourage any aspiring title holders that are reading this to keep going. Your time will come.
For my entire life, I have worked towards my dream of becoming Miss America. The truth is, I do not know if I will ever be Miss America. Shoot, I may never even make it to the Miss America stage, and that’s okay. If I have learned anything in my short lifetime it is this: You cannot plan for what the future will bring. Accepting that there is a plan much greater than your own is the first step in realizing failure is not only unavoidable, but necessary. I am not telling you to abandon your dreams, by all means take every advantage and opportunity you can to achieve them! But, what I am saying is that extraordinary people are only extraordinary because they are real people who rose above every rejection they faced and continue to face. I am not perfect. I do not want to be. I want to be Natalie, and that’s sufficient. That’s enough. As I journey on to compete for Miss California, I am hopeful that you can see a crown does not define my success nor does it for any of the other well deserving contestants. I am filled with excitement and humility knowing that I am exactly right where I am meant to be. I encourage all of you to go out, be fabulous, and catch your dreams!
-Miss Orange Coast 2017 Natalie Benson