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introducing miss arkansas
by Emily Merrell, photography by Amy Long

For the first time since 1975, Jonesboro is home to the reigning Miss Arkansas. On June 17, at the newly renovated Robinson Performance Hall in Downtown Little Rock, Maggie Benton was crowned the 80th Miss Arkansas.

Benton will compete for the title of Miss America on Sept. 10 in Atlantic City, N.J. Benton’s journey to Miss Arkansas has been five years in the making, beginning when she had the opportunity to see how inspirational the job could be.

“During my senior year of high school at Valley View, I went to a Make-a-Wish Foundation benefit event, Princess for a Day,” said Benton. “Miss Arkansas 2011, Kristen Glover, was there playing with kids, signing autographs and speaking about her platform. It was my first time to ever meet a Miss Arkansas at 17 years old … and I just saw what she was doing, and thought, ‘That would be so cool to do. Who knew that’s what they do on the job?’ All I ever knew about pageants was the stage stuff, which is not what I really cared about.
“So, I decided to do a pageant, and I had never been in one in my entire life. When I was 17, I did Miss Lights of the Delta … and I won, kind of by accident. I tried to win, but I was really surprised. It looked like I had won Miss America when you saw my face.”

Her first pageant win was not just beginner’s luck for Benton. Although she says her first Miss Arkansas in 2013 was a major learning year, Benton did not let her inexperience in the pageant world discourage her. During the summer of 2014, while she worked as a Kanakuk Camp counselor, she decided to make becoming Miss Arkansas a major goal for herself, in addition to pursuing a degree in communications from the University of Arkansas.

“I decided I really wanted to go for it in the long haul; I wanted to keep going until I could actually win,” said Benton. “The next summer, after my sophomore year, I went back and I made the top 15. And then the next summer I went back and made the top 10. Then the next summer was this year, and I knew that I had to skip over the top 5 threshold. I knew in my head I wanted this to be my last year – I wanted to just put all my eggs in one basket, because I had just graduated college, and I was going to need to either start on my career, go to graduate school or do this. And so, it was just God’s timing, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”

Benton is over a month into her year-long reign as Miss Arkansas, a full-time job with no shortage of responsibilities in addition to competing in Miss America. For the majority of the next year she will travel all over Arkansas to visit schools, civic organizations, churches and other community events to speak about her platform, promote sponsors, promote Miss Arkansas scholarships and serve as the ambassador for the state of Arkansas’ Children’s Hospital, a role that requires hands-on fundraising for Children’s Miracle Network.

Benton says she enjoys every role she fills as Miss Arkansas, but her favorite part is spending time with kids and teaching them about her platform, “Giving is a Gift.” Benton’s platform focuses on the joys everyone can experience by giving to others and demonstrating kindness.

“I feel society can benefit from a little encouragement to experience the joy of giving, from expressing a compliment, volunteering one’s time or supporting a worthy cause,” said Benton. “I created my platform, Giving is a Gift, to encourage and empower people of all ages to spread the joy of giving. From the very young to the senior adult, all can perform acts of kindness and generosity to those in their surroundings. When I have the pleasure of speaking to various age groups, I try to focus my message in an appropriate manner that each audience can easily understand and undertake.”

For younger children, she encourages random acts of kindness, such as small things kids can do or say to their peers to encourage them. Benton recently had the opportunity to spend time with children involved with the Make-a-Wish Foundation and says it has been her favorite part of her job thus far.

“… It was about celebrating what they had overcome, and they had all been through it together as a community,” said Benton. “I played with them, took pictures with them and talked to them about my platform and how that ties into them, and also how I’ve been able to let Make-a-Wish be something that I’ve given to, and that chain reaction. That was by far my favorite thing I’ve done yet.”

With only a little more than a month until she heads to Atlantic City for Miss America, speaking at events like this helps Benton stay in what she calls “pageant mode.” Besides interacting with as many people as possible to keep her communication skills sharp, she says pageant preparation has become a way of life for her.

“Day-in and day-out preparation has kind of been what it’s become for me, because it’s been over the course of five years,” Benton explained. “So, what choices do I need to make every day to make sure that I’m ultimately going to be helping myself in this process and not hurting myself? This morning I just got up and went to the gym before I even started my day. And being involved on my phone with the news and the media. Or watching TV at night when I’m eating dinner, and just those kinds of things. Also getting out in the community and speaking to people and meeting people. It doesn’t seem like it would tie together, but it really does help to just be in communication with people all the time.”

Along with her degree in communication, the skills Benton has perfected through her experience in pageants has prepared her well for her future beyond Miss Arkansas. The scholarship funds she was awarded certainly don’t hurt, either. Benton won $38,000 in scholarships this year, and more than $46,000 in total over the past five years. These awards will allow her to pursue a master’s degree in public service from the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock, beginning in August 2018. Benton says she is interested in a career in nonprofit work or behind-the-scenes governmental work, such as campaign management or advising.

According to Benton, the amount of scholarship money that the Miss America organization awards to women is the most unknown fact about it.

“People never realize how much scholarship money is involved in the Miss America organization,” she said. “It’s the leading scholarship provider for women in the world. The state of Arkansas gives out more scholarship money than any state in the country, so it’s really an amazing deal realizing how much scholarship money is given out and how much that benefits the contestants.”

Benton says a common misconception about the pageant world is what pageant girls are really like.

“I don’t think people necessarily understand how relatable pageant girls actually are,” said Benton. “Growing up, even I looked at them as being on a pedestal and famous, but really they’re just women who want to learn a lot. They want to have a good education. They want to meet people, they want to talk to people … and they want to learn about the world that they live in. And they’re not just some untouchable species; they’re women who care about life and what all it involves.”

Benton is grateful to her family for helping her through her journey to Miss Arkansas, especially her parents, Murray and Nancy Benton. She says her family has been with her every step of the way and with every aspect of the pageants.

“My ultimate pageant coach was my mother, in the best way possible,” she said. “… My parents prayed for me through the whole process. … My whole family was at the pageant this year and came up on the stage after it was over, and we celebrated together. It has been a team effort. I would actually not be here right now doing Miss Arkansas if my parents had not been here for me, just from carrying dresses to encouraging me, you can’t even imagine. It has been a major family endeavor. It takes a village.”

Benton’s advice to girls who are thinking about getting into pageants is to give it a try, because there is a lot to gain from the experience, regardless of who gets the crown.

“I never thought I would do a pageant, I really didn’t,” said Benton. “It has completely altered the course of my life. … Everything that I did in college and everything that I’ve done since I got involved has been improved upon because of the skills that I got from working toward a pageant in the Miss America organization. Just try it, and if you don’t succeed, you get so much out of the experience just working for it. Had I not won this year, I would have walked away with a lot of scholarship money, a lot of new ideas about the world and a lot of skills.

“There’s so much vulnerability that comes with it. It’s good to put yourself in a position where you’re putting yourself out there. I think people are scared to do that today, and so I would say, ‘Put yourself out there; do it.’”

Maggie Benton will appear at her Hometown Celebration on Aug. 5 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Central Baptist Church. This event is open to the public. For those interested in keeping up with the details of Benton’s year as Miss Arkansas, visit maggiebenton.blogspot.com, where she will be posting day-to-day updates during her Miss Arkansas journey. Follow Maggie on all social media platforms at @MissAmericaAR.