BY REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Amy Buhrmaster knows exactly what you’re thinking about the time and effort she’s put into the America’s Homecoming Queen pageant. She’s heard it many times.
“They’re like, ‘Oh, I think that’s kind of shallow,’ ” Buhrmaster said of her friends and acquaintances at Niskayuna High School and around the community.
“They didn’t get why I was doing it,” she added. “But the first pageant I did, I came back with so much confidence.”
Though she did not win the national title in Memphis this year, she came home with a scholarship from her state-level win and a smile on her face.
Buhrmaster is a recent graduate from Niskayuna High School who will attend Syracuse University in the fall, a four-generation tradition in her family. She’s a scholar, a musician, and a volunteer. And yes, she enjoys bonding with other young women while competing for a rhinestone-encrusted crown.
It troubles the bubbly, almost-college student to see the way others sometimes react to her choice to participate in pageants, especially this one. The America’s Homecoming Queen pageant does involve a bit of dress shopping, but ironically, it’s an event that champions inner beauty.
“It’s more a scholarship competition than it is a typical pageant,” Buhrmaster said. The first requirement to enter the competition is to be elected homecoming queen at your high school, which she was in November 2014.
“They don’t judge on appearances,” Buhrmaster reiterated. In some states, especially in the southern part of the country, where homecoming queens are celebrated by their communities year-round, there are state-level pageants. But in others, where there are relatively few applicants, the America’s Homecoming Queen judges simply choose from applications.
“They look for leadership ability, community service,” she said.
That’s how Buhrmaster was chosen. There was no state-level pageant in New York. She’ll receive a scholarship toward her education at Syracuse just for being selected at the state level. If she had won at nationals in Memphis, Tennessee, the financial support would have been even greater.
It’s not an easy win, though. For the big pageant, Buhrmaster had to prepare a two-minute video about herself. She gave a speech about why people should visit New York state, and she participated in a professional interview. Finally, there was an evening gown portion, but Buhrmaster said the judges consider the young women’s posture and the confidence they project, not the shapes of their noses or hips.
“It’s not how you look. It’s how you carry yourself,” she said.
Bonding activities, most of them surprises to the pageant contestants before they arrive in Memphis, underscore the pageant’s holistic attitude. In addition to visiting landmarks around the area of the contest, there’s usually a community service component.
Indirectly, the competition has helped Buhrmaster hone professional skills that will serve her in college and beyond. For example, it’s a tradition at the competition for contestants to bring souvenirs from their states to share with each other and the judges.
“That’s been a really awesome opportunity for me because I’ve been able to reach out to lots of people in the state,” she said.
She emailed state Sen. Hugh Farley late one evening, and was pleasantly surprised when his office answered her request for help first thing the next morning. By 4 in the afternoon, someone had hand-delivered a box of I Love New York memorabilia. She’s also been in touch with officials at the Schenectady Chamber of Commerce, where she sought fundraising advice.
“I have gotten so good at writing professional emails in the last few weeks,” Buhrmaster said.
“I’ve already learned so much,” she added. “I love it. It’s networking, too.”
And when it comes to networking, emails were just the beginning. The competition has an additional component, America’s Favorite Homecoming Queen, where state and national finalists compete online for votes, each of which cost a $1 donation to the organization’s scholarship fund. The winner earns a scholarship, just one more opportunity for extra college funding. Buhrmaster said she’s been sharing the link on social media platforms for days, asking her friends, family and neighbors to share and vote.
Though it would probably feel great to be labeled the country’s favorite homecoming queen, Buhrmaster has her eye on the financial prize. “I’m going to college, and it takes a village,” she said.
At publication time, the winner of the online vote had not yet been announced.
As Buhrmaster packed for her flight to Memphis, she said she wished more people understood that pageants can be a tool for empowering young women, not just a way of objectifying them.
“People think pageant girls, they think they’re tall and skinny and beautiful, but everyone should feel that way,” she said. “When you go and do you do things like this … these girls are funny and smart. If you watched Miss USA, some of those girls want to be in politics; they want to be doctors, and that’s what they’re studying.
“It’s a stepping stone to get where you want to be in life,” she continued.
“They’re so uplifting. I absolutely love them.”
Plus, she said, it’s realistic to recognize that the way people present themselves — men and women alike — can be important in social and professional situations.
“We do live in a society based on how we look outside, and you want to show you care about yourself,” she said. “But it’s your thoughts and your opinions that matter.”