New directors of ND pageant promote 'making a difference'
FARGO - Three years ago, Meg Pulkrabek and Janelle Steinberg were posing awkwardly on stage at the North Dakota International Pageant.
FARGO – Three years ago, Meg Pulkrabek and Janelle Steinberg were posing awkwardly on stage at the North Dakota International Pageant.
Pulkrabek, 27, and Steinberg, 39, laugh when they think of their exaggerated mannerisms and uncomfortable photos. But they thought "pageant girls" were supposed to pose a certain way.
The women didn't place that year but decided to compete again, and in 2014, Pulkrabek won the Miss title and Steinberg the Mrs. Now, they've teamed up to direct the pageant.
Former directors Allison Harmon and Kathy Yohe retired last year, and Pulkrabek and Steinberg directed their first pageant Jan. 16 in Fargo. They're aiming to encourage girls and women to compete to promote their passions.
The North Dakota International Pageant is a platform-based pageant with no swimsuit or talent competitions. Contestants are judged on two interviews, fitness wear, evening gown and "fun fashion."
"I think if we had a stereotypical pageant girl in our show, she wouldn't fit in," Pulkrabek says. "When we're scouting and recruiting, we're looking for people on social media and in the news who did a big service project, somebody that's already living it."
When they approach women, nine out of 10 say no, she says.
"I think when a lot of girls first compete, all they know is the beauty part. We have to push them and say, 'Most of this is who you are on the inside,' " Pulkrabek says. "The mission of the international system is to make a difference. We're looking for girls that in their heart, they want to do something bigger."
Steinberg and Pulkrabek acknowledge that the gown-wearing and beauty aspects are still part of the pageant, but they're not the focus.
The North Dakota International Pageant was formed because the philanthropic facet was missing from other pageants, Steinberg says.
"It's based more on where women can go rather than the same old tiredness. Yeah, we're focused on interview and platforms, but you need to have some poise and presence," she says. "It's fun to get to dress up. If you feel beautiful and you're out there, it doesn't matter if you trip. It's about standing up and saying, 'Oh well.' "
Not a 'pageant girl'
Like many women approached by Pulkrabek and Steinberg to compete, Ashley Rae Klinger's first response was "No."
The 35-year-old Grand Forks woman owns Brand Logic, a mentoring and coaching firm for women, and started the Cope Well Foundation, a nonprofit that helps people with emotional recovery after cancer.
She eventually decided to compete in the North Dakota International Pageant to increase awareness of the Cope Well Foundation, which she started after being diagnosed with melanoma in 2008.
"I said, 'You know what, I've gotta practice what I preach.' This is a great opportunity for me to lead by example and show women that life truly is about combining the abilities you have with opportunities that are out there," she says.
Klinger didn't hire a pageant coach or personal trainer and felt like her 5-foot-3 height and short hair could work against her.
"I'm 5-foot-3 - when you think of a pageant girl, you think of someone 6-foot tall with long hair. That is so not me. I just went in, and I was just real. I was just me," she says. "You don't need all of that stuff. If you just embrace who you are and what you have to offer and stay true to what you're passionate about and what brings you purpose in life, that is going to get you so much further than you ever could've expected."
She took home the Mrs. crown and won every category of competition. Her reign officially began Saturday at the American Heart Association's Red River Valley Heart Ball. North Dakota International Pageants partner with the organization on a national level. Although the partnership isn't why the pageant includes a fitness-wear portion, it aligns with the pageant's goal of promoting a healthy, positive body image, Pulkrabek says.
"We're not looking for a bikini body. We're looking for a healthy body. What really shines is confidence," she says.
New this year, Pulkrabek and Steinberg added a Junior Teen division to the competition for girls ages 8 to 12. Teens ages 13 to 18 compete in the Miss Teen category; the Miss division is for 19- to 30-year-olds who've never been married and don't have children; and Mrs. contestants are married and 21 to 56 years old and must be residing with a spouse who was born male, according to competition rules on the pageant website.
The North Dakota International Pageant doesn't have a category for unmarried women over age 30 or divorced women, among others, but Pulkrabek says that in time, she thinks they'll add a Ms. category for the unmarried 30-plus-year-olds.
"It's still a relatively young system," she says.
Pulkrabek and Steinberg have implemented other changes, such as partnering with more North Dakota small businesses and changing the location of the pageant to the Stage at Island Park. The event was previously held at schools. The new environment allowed the audience access to food and cocktails, and the changes reflect the new directors' goal of shifting the view of the pageant from competition to show.
"We want it to be more of a show about women being who they are," Steinberg says.