With smarts and beauty, she wanted to be relevant

Cara McCollum ’15
AP Images/The Press of Atlantic City/Vernon Ogrodnek

FEB. 6, 1992–FEB. 22, 2016

I first met Cara McCollum ’15 in June 2013, when she was a contestant for the title of Miss New Jersey and I was one of six judges helping to select a pageant winner. I was surprised to learn she had just completed her junior year at Princeton. Pageantry is not a common activity for a Princeton woman; since 1972 only three Tigers have competed on the Miss America stage. 

McCollum, her high school’s valedictorian, told us that she decided to compete in the Miss America Pageant because she wanted to grow her nonprofit, The Birthday Book Project, which gives children books on their birthdays. 

She didn’t win the national title, returning to Princeton to graduate with a degree in English. On an icy evening last February, as she drove home from her job as an anchor for the local television show SNJ [Southern New Jersey] Today, McCollum lost control of her car, crashing into trees. A week later, she died.

Four months before her passing, McCollum emailed me a copy of her senior thesis, “All That Glitters: The Pretty, The Plastic, and The Problematic of The Miss America Pageant.” In it she tackled complex issues, including diversity in pageants, ethnic beauty standards, pressure on young women, the plastic-surgery industry, reality-television trends, and the psychological effects of various types of competition. The thesis showcases a sharp observer with a clear voice, and she earned an A.

In summing up her experience both as Miss New Jersey and as a Princeton undergraduate, McCollum explained in her afterword: “It was a life-changing year, and I’m still trying to sift through the wreckage and reward and figure out exactly what that means in the only way I know how — writing. Though writing this wasn’t easy for me; in fact, it was oftentimes upsetting, painful, and emotionally draining, and yet I think the work is important. ... It speaks to the deeper problems with America’s beauty standard and the portrayal of and impossible expectations placed on modern women.”

McCollum knew that many people have preconceived ideas about — take your pick — blonde girls, Southern girls, pageant girls, smart girls, Princeton girls. But McCollum was the living embodiment of each of these “girls.” She fully understood the complexities, the contradictions, and the commonalities of these identities.

At the time of her death, though, she was cynical about pageantry. She was still sorting out her feelings about balancing an appearance-based experience (and profession) with being a role model to young girls. In her thesis, she explained, “Throughout my reign, I traveled to dozens of classrooms and talked to thousands of young girls and told them about the importance of being self-confident. But I almost always followed it up by saying that I was currently wearing fake eyelashes, and lots of makeup, and hair extensions, and sometimes my hair extensions were wrapped around a sock I had cut a hole in to make a bun. ... I didn’t tell girls those things so that they’d emulate them, I told them so that they’d know that I didn’t ‘wake up like this.’ ”

McCollum was also frustrated that the Miss America organization itself seemed to promote stereotypes instead of nuance. She wrote, “Instead of national article headlines reading, ‘Miss America Contestants Raise $x for Charity’ or ‘Ivy League Student Competes in Miss America,’ they read, ‘Miss America Beauty Secrets: Butt Glue and Lots of Tape.’ Show a Miss America contestant being smart, studious, philanthropic, eloquent, poised, and talented, and maybe people will start taking these pageant girls more seriously. ... But until then, she’s just going to be viewed as a silly and irrelevant beauty queen.”

McCollum herself was all of the words she wrote: smart, studious, philanthropic, eloquent, poised, and talented. She was far more than a stereotype. 

Sociologist Hilary Levey Friedman *09 teaches a course on beauty pageants in American society at Brown University and is writing a book on the topic. 


VIDEO: Cara McCollum ’15

Courtesy SNJ Today