By Donalevan Maines
There she is, the first out Miss America—maybe, if Miss Missouri 2016, vocalist Erin O’Flaherty, wins the granddaddy of all beauty pageants on September 11.
“It’s starting to sink in,” says O’Flaherty, 23, who won the Show-Me State’s crown on June 18. “I realize more and more every day that this is definitely not about me. Every single day, I receive messages from LGBT people [who just want] to say ‘thank you’ for being present. It’s taken a while to realize that I didn’t just make history—[I can also] be somebody who is a point of reference, to show adolescents they don’t have to fit a stereotype.”
O’Flaherty is the first openly gay woman to ever win a state title and advance to the Super Bowl of pageantry where an annual “queen of femininity” has been crowned 94 times.
The fact that other out lesbians haven’t competed at Miss America “is hard to believe,” says 20-year-old Caroline Carothers, the current Miss Texas 2016.
But then, it wasn’t until 1983 that an African-American beauty, Vanessa Williams, won Miss America and was crowned by Debbie Maffett of Cut and Shoot, Texas.
The Miss America pageant “exists in its own bubble,” 1998 winner Kate Shindle explained to the New York Times in August 2014.
A tireless AIDS activist, Shindle will play the grown-up lesbian protagonist Alison in the national tour of the 2015 Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Fun Home, which comes to Houston in May of 2017. The groundbreaking show, based on out author Alison Bechdel’s graphic 2006 memoir, unlocks labyrinthine mysteries in Bechdel’s life as the daughter of a closeted gay pedophile who runs a funeral parlor in Pennsylvania.
O’Flaherty says she was surprised to learn that Shindle originated “The Mad Hatter” song from the musical Wonderland that O’Flaherty will perform in the talent competition at Miss America. (The book for Wonderland, which played for a month on Broadway in 2011, was co-written by the Alley Theatre’s Gregory Boyd, who directed Shindle as Maggie in the Alley’s 2005 staging of Arthur Miller’s After the Fall.)
Unlike Shindle, O’Flaherty doesn’t dream of becoming a Broadway star. In 2013, she graduated from the University of Central Florida in Orlando with a major in legal studies. She hopes to put her pageant scholarships (including $12,000 she won as Miss Missouri) toward obtaining a master’s degree in business administration.
Miss America 2017 will win a $50,000 scholarship.
O’Flaherty, who was born in Ohio, graduated at age 16 in South Carolina. At 18, she began competing in pageants, advancing three times to Florida’s state preliminary and placing as a semifinalist in 2013 when she was Miss UCF.
After graduating from college, O’Flaherty moved to St. Louis, where until recently she worked in her family’s clothing boutique. “I took two years off from competing,” she says, returning to the pageant world this year and winning Miss Missouri as Miss City of Fountains.
An anomaly in pageants as an openly gay contestant, O’Flaherty says that she was encouraged in Florida by former Houstonian Juan Cantu, an out pageant aficionado who moved to Orlando to perform at Disney World. “Juan is wonderful,” says O’Flaherty. “He was just great support. He always had my back.”
Last month, O’Flaherty returned to visit Orlando, where she had come out in college and was involved in the Equal club on campus, which provided an opportunity for “students who are LGBTQ+ or allies to network and socialize.”
She says, “The first place my best friend took me was Pulse,” the gay nightclub where 49 people were massacred and many others injured in a shooting rampage on June 12. “I finally [feel like I have] had the chance to process my grief and pay my respects,” she explains. “Pulse absolutely was a safe haven. It was incredible to see makeshift memorials across the city.”
O’Flaherty’s platform as a Miss America contestant is suicide prevention. She works closely with both the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and The Trevor Project, the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ young people ages 13–24. For example, O’Flaherty marched and tabled with The Trevor Project at this summer’s San Diego Pride in July.
The platform requirement (where each contestant advocates on behalf of a social issue) became a thing in Miss America competitions after Kaye Lani Rae Rafko of Michigan, an AIDS hospice nurse, won the crown in 1987.
In 2012, Leanza Cornett won as Miss Florida and toured the country, urging safer sex and AIDS prevention.
The first Miss America contestant to promote gay rights, Miss New York 2010 Claire Buffie, was rewarded by fans who voted her into the Top 15 as an “America’s Choice” contestant at the 2011 Miss America Pageant.
Again this year, public voting will advance a contestant into the Top 15. Fans may vote daily at http://missamerica.org/vote/. The remaining contestants in the Top 15 will have been selected by the Miss America preliminary judges’ panel. It is possible for the “America’s Choice” winner to also be among the judges’ selections.
Carothers, who won the Miss Texas Scholarship Pageant as Miss Plano, entitled her platform “With + Math = I Can.” She won overall interview and overall talent at the state competition, where Miss Houston Margana Wood won overall swimsuit, overall evening gown, and collected $9,500 in cash scholarships while placing as first runner-up.
Carothers has completed two years at Baylor University, majoring in secondary education with an emphasis on math. “I have always loved math. I have always loved school,” she says. “School-supplies shopping was always my favorite day of the year.”
In the talent competition, Carothers twirls three batons and a cane to “Hot Heavy Rag” from the 1975 Broadway musical Chicago. “It’s 90 seconds of super-energy fun,” she says.
The routine was choreographed by Shea Sullivan, a former Miss Oklahoma runner-up. She choreographed the 2009 movie The Big Gay Musical and both produced and choreographed the 2014 off-Broadway revival of Pageant, a musical in which an all-male cast portrayed females vying for the fictional Miss Glamouresse tiara.
The Miss America telecast will be hosted by Chris Harrison (of The Bachelor and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?) and Sage Steele, of NBA Countdown on ABC and ESPN.
Among the celebrity judges will be Dallas entrepreneur Mark Cuban, actress Sara Foster (VH1’s Barely Famous), singer-songwriter Cole Swindell, former Miss America Sharlene Wells Hawkes, Olympic gold-medalist Gabby Douglas, and musician/actress Laura Marano.
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.