Leah Cecil, Miss California 2012
A conversation with Miss California 2012.
by Steve Phipps/FAMAMOCA • 17 May 2013
From the California College of the Arts in San Francisco: Leah Cecil, Miss California 2012 and designer Johnny Paul Vera, before the VIP reception. Right: in the audience for the Annual Fashion Show 2013. Photographs by the author.
Phipps: You're involved with the Miss America Organization. What is their mission and how did you get involved?
Leah Cecil: The Miss America Organization is the largest non-profit organization that provides scholarships for young women in the world. And I'm very proud to be part of this organization, because I have grown up in, and been part of this organization since I was 14. And since then, I've earned over 20,000 dollars in scholarships. And that has paid for most of my bachelor's degree. This organization is open to any young woman between the ages of 13 and 24. You are also representing yourself, and representing a charity of your own. We have Platform. We have a talent we have to perform. We have Interview. You have to be a college-aged student. You have to have good grades.
What's the cut off?
For grades, there's really no cutoff, but it's really up to the judges, their judgment. We do concentrate on talent and scholarship. We do get scholarship money. The Miss America Organization is really for girls that want to get that scholarship and continue going to school. Yes, we do have gown, and we do have swimsuit, and we have that production value to the competition. But really, what goes on behind the scenes, what you don't see is we have these grades, we're going to school, we have community service, we have platforms. And we have Talent, that's the big thing, that's the big difference. It's not that any one pageant organization is better than the other, it just depends on what career goal you have.
What attracted you to the pageant?
When I was 14, I was a very awkward young girl. I think most 14 year-olds can relate. We're inexperienced. We don't have a lot of life experience. But I had a friend who was Garden Grove's Outstanding Teen, and Garden Grove is my home town. And I saw that she got to hang out with the mayor, she got to be in the Strawberry Festival Parade. She was getting money for school. That was huge. And I saw how comfortable she was in front of crowds, and performing in front of people. So at the age of 14, that seemed very attractive to me. And I couldn't really fit in at school, in different ways. So I decided to just join the Miss Garden Grove pageant. And it took me three years to actually win something. The first thing I won was actually in Anaheim. I didn't win in Garden Grove for two years. But I decided I wanted to try another city, which was neighboring Garden Grove. And I ended up winning there. Then got second runner-up at the State level as a teen, then took a couple years off. Finished my Senior year in high school, finished my Freshman year in college. And then I decided, okay, I miss it. I need some more scholarship money now that I'm in college. So I went for Miss Garden Grove. Actually didn't win the first time. Got first runner-up. Then came back the following year, and that's when I won Miss Garden Grove.
From the California College of the Arts, Annual Fashion Show 2013: Leah Cecil, Miss California 2012, with designer Johnny Paul Vera; in the sewing room. Photographs by the author.
With modeling, it turns out that having a strong presence on the runway is a talent or a skill. It's something I didn't discover until I was a photographer. So one of the questions I like to ask models is for a tip about walking the runway. So, Leah, give me a tip about having a strong presence on stage. You're going out for the swimsuit, for your gown, give me a tip about walking your exit, about having a strong stage presence.
Well, part of that stage presence is even just that second before you appear on stage, and that second before you disappear off stage, you want to have that presence, because that judge that's watching you, if they like you, they'll be watching you every second until you disappear behind those curtains. And you have to have that presence instead of just turning around and then just turning it off because you think that the judges don't see you, or the audience doesn't see you.
You're saying you keep it the whole time.
You keep it the whole time.
But what is it? How do you get there? You're just about to go out, you're standing in the wings.
I don't think it comes easily. For me, it didn't come easily. It took a lot of practice obviously. But I have learned, while you are walking on stage, while you are standing in front of a crowd, you act like there is a string holding up your head. You can think of it holding up your head. Or, there is a string with a needle at the end, and you want to keep that tip just kind of touching your head, and if you start slouching you're not going to feel that anymore. So there are just little tips here and there I've learned.
Give me a tip about choosing a successful gown.
You know, it's all about how you feel in it. I know when Johnny Paul Vera—he is actually designing a gown for me to wear when I crown the next Miss California on June 29, in Fresno. And we actually will be streaming it online, you can find the link on our website at MissCalifornia.org. So we'll be streaming it online for the first time ever. Everybody will get to see Johnny Paul's gown that he's designed for me. And he's so sweet, because he has his input, and he's listened to my input. But he's always asking me, how do you feel? How do you feel? If you feel weightless, if you feel elegant. If you feel like yourself, that's important. The color, the fit, those are all very important aspects of the gown. But Johnny Paul is always worried about how I feel in it, and I think that's what most important.
What's something you have discovered about being Miss California that's been a surprise? What's something you learned about holding the title only after you won it?
Because I'm a musician, I play the harp, before this year, I didn't have a lot of marketing or advertising skills. So I wanted to go into getting a Master's degree in Business, so I could learn the business side of music, in order to help myself, to be promoted as a harpist in the area of Los Angeles and Orange County. But after this year, I realized, oh my gosh, I don't need to go to Business School. This job alone has given me more skills in advertising and marketing than I could have ever imagined, and I don't need to go to Business School because of this year. The tools I have been able to learn are mainly helping businesses grow and be promoted in the community.
What's the mark of professionalism for a pageant winner? You look and you say, yes, she did it really well. What does it mean?
Being in this quote-unquote industry, of being in competitions and pageants, you're ultimately, no matter what organization you're a part of, you're representing that organization. You are the face of that organization. Some title holders make the title about themselves, and they think it's going to help them in the future personally, when it comes to making themselves popular, in society. Which that can help. But ultimately, your goal is to promote that organization that you are standing for. And for me, of course this has helped my popularity on social media, but my ultimate goal was to leave a legacy where the organization has benefited. This year, I have developed a social media user name, and also activity for our organization. We're all over social media. Our handle is MissCAorg. You can find us on twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook.
Yes, on Pinterest. So we're all over the social media. I've been able to get the girls involved in getting other types of awards. So for me, my ultimate goal of professionalism was to leave that legacy where people benefited from it, and not just myself.
When you were typing on Pinterest, all the photos, would you actually say "Here she is" while you were typing? Did you actually do the voice in your head?
Oh, on my Pinterest. Yes, I posted all the girls' crowning photos.
So, let's hear it. Do the voice.
Our thanks to Leah Cecil Miss California 2012, designer Johnny Paul Vera, and Allison Byers, Jim Norrena and Brenda Tucker at the California College of the Arts.
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