A beautiful sash and shiny crown are waiting at the end of the Miss America finish line, a far cry from the uniformity of military life. Yet the two worlds may be more alike than they are different.
“You see this presence, character development, and a heart for service throughout both organizations,” said Miss Maryland, Lydia Sohn. The Navy ensign is in a Reserve status as she prepares to attend Des Moines University College of Osteopathic Medicine.
The other military women competing for the 100th Miss America title include Miss Idaho, a civil affairs specialist in the Army Reserve, Miss District of Columbia, a Navy ensign serving in a Reserve status to study at George Washington University, and Miss Colorado, an intelligence analyst in the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson.
Sohn started her Miss America journey by competing a few times in Virginia, and as she puts it, “Once you compete, you’re hooked.” After moving to Maryland, she decided to give it one more try before aging out, and was crowned Miss Western Maryland before winning the Miss Maryland title.
She says the Miss America organization prepares you for leadership and serving opportunities, much like the military. “The social impact work that I do is a big part of the competition,” said Sohn. “You don’t just set a vision for what you want your community to look like a year from now or even 10 years from now. You’re given the opportunities and the skillset to put in the work.”
Spc. Ayriss Torres, Miss Idaho, says there’s no doubt the Army prepared her for the work she’s been doing all year representing her home state. “It takes so much leadership and dedication,” Torres said. “You really have to believe in everything you’re doing every single day.”
Torres is no stranger to the world of pageantry. In fact, she began competing in Miss America’s teen program at the age of 15 with hopes of winning scholarship money. Today, as she gears up to represent Idaho in the Miss America competition, she says she’s proud to be breaking the mold. “Especially with women, we continue to put them in these little boxes. We tell them they can only be a specific rank and be a specific stature in life. They can only look a certain way. They can’t be glamorous and functional at the same time.” But as Torres points out, she’s always the same person, regardless of which uniform she’s wearing that day.
Other military women who have competed in similar competitions echo this same sentiment. Lt. Kellie Hall, a human resources officer in the Navy, competed in several Miss Ohio USA competitions before being named Runner-up in Miss California USA 2020.
Hall says competing made her a better person, and in turn, a better Naval officer. “My confidence really formed when I was at the Naval Academy and continued to grow out in the fleet, but doing pageants, I had to ask myself hard questions,” said Hall. “Why do I want to do this? What kind of leader am I? what makes me special? How do I want to inspire people?”
Today, Hall uses her Instagram platform and podcast, “MissUnderstood,” to empower women to live confidently and #DoBoth. “We can’t have people in the military who feel like they can’t express themselves,” said Hall.
As Sohn and Torres continue to prepare for the big day, both share that same vision of changing what it means to be a female leader, especially in the military. “I think women today really get to define their own success,” said Torres. “Whether that’s in the military or pageantry, as a scholar, or even just traveling the world, you get to create that for yourself.”