Havre Daily News
In the Hollywood version of a beauty pageant, a contestant advocates for cancer research before flashing her well-practiced smile. Once out of the spotlight, she lets her thoughts turn back to shiny objects and puppies.
In the real world, or at least in the case of newly crowned Miss Montana Jill McLain, off-stage life really is dedicated to helping people.
Havre native McLain returned Tuesday to Dickinson State University in Dickinson, N.D., where she is in the midst of cancer research. This after a weekend spent winning the Miss Montana USA pageant in Billings.
McLain may be bubbly, but she has a seriousness that extends beyond the interview portion of a pageant. She is majoring in biology and chemistry, is a member of a college science club designing a space suit for NASA, and a cancer researcher.
"They are multiplying right now as we speak," McLain said about prostate cancer cells she's growing for her research. Once she has grown the cells, McLain will test the effect of lycopene, a red pigment found in tomatoes, guavas and watermelon, on those cells.
After this semester, the Dickinson senior will put college on hold to dedicate herself to the demands of the national pageant, which are also intense.
McLain's win Sunday earns her a place at the Miss USA pageant, a nationally televised pageant owned by Donald Trump, to be held in April.
To make a good showing there, McLainmust continue to work on improving her physique, her poise and - the fun part - her wardrobe. She'll have a nutritionist, and perhaps a trainer, provided by the Miss Montana contest, as well as a shopping spree. In the coming months she'll make appearances in other statewide pageants and at community service events across the country, visiting nine states for both purposes.
"It still hasn't sunk in yet," McLain said Tuesday in a telephone interview from Dickinson, where she'd returned Monday to flowers, calls and congratulations from friends.
McLain entered her first pageant at age 14. She tried three times to be Miss Teen Montana and also Miss Teen USA at a pageant in Florida. This was the first year she tried for Miss Montana USA, she said, which is for women who are 19 to 27.
She recalls enjoying playing dress-up from a young age, beginning with a trunk of play clothes her mother gave her. That, along with a competitive streak that McLain, who is 5 foot 1, couldn't easily satisfy through sports, led her on her way to pageants.
She'd always done well, but had never won a pageant like this one, she said.
Now McLain will have a single shot at Miss USA. She won't be eligible for the pageant again after winning Miss Montana USA. The likely other pageant she may have ahead of her is Miss Petite International, a pageant she tried in the past, reaching the top 15. But she can't attempt that until her reign as Miss Montana ends in one year.
McLain said she was told by the judges that she won because of her ability in the interview process. In that event, judges ask a few questions over two minutes and then one on-stage question. Those questions tend to come from a contestant's resume, rather than being sweeping questions about changing the world.
In McLain's case, she was able to talk about her cancer research.
Other pageant events included evening wear and swimsuit competitions. What matters in those are your looks, but also how you carry yourself, McLain said.
She said about wearing a bathing suit in front of an audience: "It's funny, but I work so hard on getting my body fit that it doesn't bother me. I feel really good. It doesn't exploit women. You work so hard on your body and you want to show it off. It takes a lot of self-confidence."
Jill's mother, Steph McLain, has seen that characteristic develop in her daughter. A lot of it, she said, comes from the mental and physical preparation. Steph McLain calls her daughter to prepare her for the interview process, asking her questions each day that Jill answers as though she were speaking at a contest.
The preparation Jill gets is far different from what some young women get, Steph said. Steph and Jill have seen that when they have traveled nationally for competitions.
In Southern states, girls are trained for beauty pageants as toddlers, Steph said. At Jill's first national pageant, the mother and daughter showed up with makeup, while other girls came with an entourage of trainers.
"Montana certainly is the Jamaican bobsled team," Steph said. "We don't get a lot of people interested."