“The way in which the community comes together to support and help girls competing for scholarships and the title of queen is amazing to me.”

And this support of the community is what 2015 Miss Summerfest, Gabi Townley, points to as one of the most memorable parts of participating in beauty pageants. Townley was born in St. James and has been competing in pageants ever since she was 16 years old. Her first pageant was the St. James Grape and Fall Festival in 2013, and this past June she was the assistant director for the Summerfest Pageant.

Some may associate beauty pageants with a long-held narrative insisting pageants are purely about physical beauty. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth of competing. Townley proves that as she takes us behind-the-scenes to show us the reality of participating in beauty pageants that require a hard work ethic and cultivate skills to empower women.

Who would you say had the most significant influence on you while growing up? And how would you describe your family?

I would have to say that my parents have been the biggest influence in my life. It's not uncommon for parents to be a large part of a child's life. I was homeschooled and spent a lot more time with my parents than the average child. If I had to describe my family in three words they would be involved, joyful, and hardworking. We are involved in so many organizations; whether it be Ozark Actors Theatre, Fine Linen Theatre, 4-H, English Country Dancing, pageants, or volunteering at the Veterans Home, we are always doing something. Joyful, because life should be fun, so we try and make it fun. Everything we do we try to accomplish to the best of our ability, and we work hard to do that, and that is why I say hardworking.

What place do you cherish most from where you grew up?

I grew up in St. James and the place I most cherish is the river at Woodson K woods down past Meramec Springs. Some of my favorite memories are going to Lucy Wortham James Library for their summer reading program every Tuesday and heading to the river to swim afterward. The river is a place we go as a family, and I have always loved it.

Who or what inspired you to start competing in pageants?

My dad is actually the one who first put the idea into my head. He saw that registration was open on the information board at the tourist information center and recommended it to me.

What was your first pageant, and how would you describe the experience?

The first pageant I competed in was the St. James Grape and Fall Festival pageant. It was 2013, and I was 16 years old. I loved it! I had never done anything like it before, and I did not realize how much work goes into pageants until our first week of practice. It was hard work, and it taught me a lot. We had a fantastic director that year, and I am so grateful for all that she taught us. I honestly could not have asked for a better first experience in pageantry, and I believe that is why I have come to love pageantry so much.

How do you prepare for competitions? Does it take months to prepare, or how long typically?

I am a planner, so one of the ways I prepare is to make lists -- lots of lists. Things I need to accomplish, purchase, or work on before a competition. This helps me keep my mind focused instead of stressed. I typically start preparing a month before a pageant. This can change depending on when the director chooses to start practices, but it's never too early to ask the director questions and start thinking of things you need to work on.

What are the main lessons and skills you've learned through competing?

There is an abundance of lessons I have learned through pageantry. If I had to choose three, I would say performing under pressure; money does not matter and interview skills. No matter what type of career you choose to follow there will be pressure.

Whether it is becoming a doctor, lawyer, artist, or even a parent, each of these comes with its own kind of pressure and being able to perform well under that pressure I believe is important. Performing under pressure is also something that we learned while doing pageants, and pageantry has taught me that.

Money does not matter. If you are in a pageant surrounded by people who care about you and how you will grow as a person, the price of your dress has nothing to do with winning the title. How you carry yourself, the way you treat people, the level of which you care for the community, and the fact that you want to represent them well will show through.

The judges are looking for those traits in a contestant. I have a great example for you; every single dress I have ever worn in a pageant has been from a thrift store. I was the 2015 Miss Summerfest. This last one is the reason I tell everyone to compete in pageants -- interview skills. Unless you plan on owning your own business you will have to take an interview and pageants are a fantastic way to practice interviewing with real people. It helps you to grow in confidence, and it teaches you what to expect when going in for a job interview.

What is the most memorable moment you have when it comes to all of the pageants you’ve participated in?  How has competing, such as preparing and being involved in all of the facets of pageantry, helped shape you as a person?

One of the most memorable moments I have had when it comes to my time competing is when I had the realization of how involved the community is in the whole process of pageantry. From scholarship donors to small gifts, the way in which the community comes together to support and help girls competing for scholarships and the title of queen is amazing to me. I have gained the highest respect for business owners, and individuals who care for their communities enough to get involved and I applaud and thank you for all you do for the community. 

I have been involved in pageants since 2013 and have been in six pageants since then, a title holder once and assistant director for the Summerfest Pageant this past June. Let me tell you; there is an enormous amount of time that goes into planning a pageant. All of these experiences have shaped my confidence, planning, work ethic, humility, stage presence, aptitude, helpfulness, people skills, and my ability to lead. I have grown in ways I cannot be more thankful for and I am happier and more able to help people because of my time in pageantry.

What are your passions and aspirations for the future? And what drove you to get a degree in the field that you did?

I love pottery, teaching, and children. So, the most appropriate thing to do is teach children pottery. I would like to have my own pottery business selling my work but also teach young children how to create pottery. I mean, what kid doesn’t like playing in mud?

Pageants help women (and men) to create and pursue goals, which leads me to what advice do you have for someone who wants to start participating and competing in pageants?

Do it! It may be scary at first, but it will help you no matter what career you decide to pursue. Pageants are a way to get involved in the community and support and represent the people and businesses who make our community better. 

No matter if you win the title of queen or not, the lessons you learn will help shape you into a better, more caring, and confident person. Be yourself; judges can tell when you are faking it. Ask questions no matter how silly they may seem. Compete to better yourself. 

And as one of the most amazing pageant directors in the history of pageant directors always says, “If the crown doesn’t fit today, it will fit another day.”