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Janelle Howard crowned Ms. Royal America

RUTLAND- Pageants are not primarily about beauty, like most people think- at least not all pageants are for all people, Janelle Howard explains. "It's not about getting the crown that matters, it's what you do with it."

Howard, a Rutland resident, was crowned Ms. Royal America on April 29 at the National competition in Connecticut, beating out 40 competitors from across the country.

Howard is not the typical beauty queen stereotype, she is indeed beautiful, but that did not motivate her to walk the runway. In fact, after a brief stint in high school, she left the world of pageantry, and it wasn't until she needed a platform that would give her a greater voice to educate that she revisited the stage. Education and community service are the fuel that drives her to the next level.

Her Cause

After graduating from Rutland High School she moved to Arizona where she was a racecar driver, among other career pursuits. "I had a good jobs in Arizona, but my entire family has retired back here and I have a 12-year-old brother who I barely knew," she said of her move to back Vermont last year. "As I approached 30, I realized I wanted to settle down closer to family… and I wanted to be closer to my brother, and eventually raise a family of my own."

But shortly after she moved back, she started to feel sick, really sick. "It got to the point where I simply couldn't stay awake; I couldn't even get out of bed at all, and I'm usually a very energetic person," she said.

The fatigue and aching was caused by a small bite that she assumed was either a mosquito or a spider bite. After showing her mom and going to the doctor, she learned had been bitten by a tick and that she had contracted Lyme disease.

"I waited until the definitive bull's-eye rash had almost disappeared completely before going to the doctor," Howard said. "But if you catch it quick enough you can take antibiotics and the symptoms may never materialize, or if they do they can be treated again with antibiotics. I'm extremely lucky to be in remission… it kind of feels like the flu at first, so every time I start to feel sick I wonder if I'm just sick or if the Lyme has resurfaced and I should go back on antibiotics. I live in fear and I just don't want others to experience this."

Wearing tall socks and tight clothing, putting blankets down on the grass, and (most importantly) checking yourself for ticks frequently, are the best ways to prevent getting Lyme. "The tall tell sign is the rash," Howard says, but she recommends not waiting to see a doctor, "let the doctor make the determination if you should go on antibiotics or not. If you're bit don't take chances."

Lyme disease in Vermont and nationwide is worse than ever this year. "They are close to calling Lyme disease an epidemic; there have been more than 16000 new cases," says Howard. "And the scary thing is anyone can get it any time and there is no definitive test for it and it never goes away," she says.

Howard didn't know much about Lyme disease until she contracted it. "My whole purpose was to get a voice so that I could talk to people about this disease and help educate folks so they know to get treatment right away," she said. "That is what drove me back into pageantry."

The Pageant

There are two main branches in the pageant world, Howard explains, The Miss USA circuit and the Miss America circuit, which include many divisions of Teen, Mrs. and Ms. depending on age and marriage status. The Miss USA contingent is owned by Donald Trump, and is focused primarily on beauty. "The girls have to be really really gorgeous and able to handle modeling jobs," Howard says. There is a talent and service portion too, but it is subsidiary. The Miss America pageant, however, is primarily driven by community service and being a good roll model.

"In between these two big systems you have all the other pageant systems which can really be whatever the pageant director wants them to be," says Howard. Explaining that many of these smaller pageant circuits feed into one of the two larger ones. "Ms. Royal America is most similar to Miss America, but Miss America ages out at 26, so if you're older that that you can't compete," she said. "These pageants don't have categories like most beautiful or best smile or any of those silly little things, it's really about being a role model and a good example in your community."

The prefix "Ms." means that it's open to girls age 18-39, who can be single, married, divorced, with or without kids, she explained.

Most of the ladies Howard competed against have been in pageants since they were toddlers and have collected a lot of crowns. "A lot of the girls there have been doing this since they were 4-5 years old which is really intimidating because the entire thing lasts a weekend," she said. "Talking to them they would say 'this will be my 47th title, if I win'" she said.

"I'm not the skinniest girl, I haven't had pageant experience since I was 2, I don't have a pageant coach and I don't have professional photos. I knew there were a lot of obstacles stacked up against me, but I also knew that if I could do it wouldn't it be cool to show my little brother what's possible… I think the judges saw that I really wanted to do something with the title and give back to the community and not just collect another crown," said Howard, humbly.

"As a former Miss Vermont Teen Queen I was invited to participate in the Ms. New England pageant on March 25, 2012," she said. She won the talent portion and placed second in the photogenic portion, which was disappointing, but it was good enough to propeller her to Nationals where she won both the talent and photogenic portions.

"My talent is jump roping," she said. "I know that sounds silly, but I've been doing it since I was a kid… we use a single rope with multiple unders and trick freestyle jumping."

Community support

Pageants require quite a bit of money, which Howard did not have, so she started an aggressive fundraising campaign in Rutland and was amazed by the community support she received.

Curves and Pyramid sponsored her gym memberships, Trace of Lace let her borrow a gown for both New Englands and Nationals, and countless people bought raffle tickets and came out to get their car washed.

"It was really this whole community that came together and helped make this happen," she said. "The support I received from this community was overwhelmingly generous, even folks that had nothing to give wanted to give what they had. Everyone is struggling, but the fact that people came out to get their car washed or buy raffle tickets to support me was so encouraging. They don't do that in other places, but they still do it in Vermont."

What's Next?

"What's it going to be," Howard is asking herself. "I've gone from driving racecars to walking runways, so now what? I'm just going through this 30-year-old 'what's my life about' stage, I think."

But she has a busy summer planned. First, she will be supporting the MS walk at Rutland High School and the March of Dimes walk at Mill River High School, both on May 12.

Then there is the Ms. U.S. of America contest in August. She won Ms. Vermont U.S. of America earlier this year and looks forward to competing for this national title, too. "Wouldn't it be crazy if I won both of them? I'm trying not to think of that now, it terrifies me," she said.

After the competition, she plans on speaking to students at local middle schools, high schools and colleges about Lyme disease, bullying and being a role model. "Seeing what the pageant world has evolved to with shows like 'Toddlers and Tears' makes me want to start a scholarship pageant of my own," says Howard. "Let's not have little girls in make-up, but rather let's support girls who want to be President and girls that want to give back to their community… I don't know where to start, but I feel like I'm on the right track."


CORRECTION: In last week's edition we inaccurately reported the age requirements for the two main pageant branches: contestants for Miss America are age 17 -24 and Miss USA are age 18-26. Also neither of these main pageant branches have a 'Ms' divisions, nor is Miss USA judged on talent. We apologize for this confusion.


Tagged: rutland, Ms. Royal America, Janelle Howard, beauty pagent