The first cut is the deepest: at the beginning of each year’s Miss America, we watch as 51 women with teased tresses and contoured cheekbones anxiously clutch hands, waiting to find out if they will have scored high enough in the preliminary competition to compete on stage in front of a national audience. They’ve already endured a week of interviews, talent performances, swimsuit and evening gown competitions; they’re scored on their fitness and stage presence in swimsuit; skill level and entertainment factor in talent; beauty and style in evening gown; and intelligence and personality in the private interview and on-stage question.
We won’t know who those lucky women are until Sunday night when the pageant airs, but there are some contestants you should keep a close eye on.
1. Miss District of Columbia, Briana Kinsey
Growing up in Hoover, Alabama, Briana Kinsey remembers being bullied for her dark skin and nearly 6-foot frame. She found confidence through pageants, placing in the top 5 at Miss Alabama multiple times before moving to Washington, D.C., to prepare for medical school. She then entered the Miss District of Columbia pageant, her last shot at making it to the Miss America stage (at 24, Kinsey’s in her last year of eligibility). And just like that, she got that ticket to Atlantic City she’d long been hoping for — along with the requisite crown and sash, of course.
Her book smarts and advocacy work have already been recognized — after the Miss America welcoming ceremony, Kinsey was named a finalist for the STEM scholarship, recognizing contestants studying science, technology, math or engineering, and the Quality of Life Award, which recognizes the work contestants do on behalf of their platform. Her work for Type II Diabetes is fueled by the experiences of her mother, grandfather and grandmother, all of whom have the disease.
Also, her bold belting performance of a ballad called “Born for This” practically demands the judges award her the crown. See for yourself at the hour and 50 minute mark of the Miss DC pageant.
PREDICTION: Her persistence will pay off.
2. Miss North Dakota, Cara Mund
North Dakota has never had a Miss America, or even a top 5 placement at the pageant. Only three Miss North Dakotas have ever made the first cut, (it’s thus ranked forty-second out of the 51 states and D.C., according to pageant historian and superfan Christopher Schram). But 23-year-old Cara Mund very well may help bump up the state’s ranking.
Her Ivy League education is sure to be an asset in the interview room and during the dreaded on-stage question — Mund is a graduate of Brown University and she’s been accepted to law school at the University of Notre Dame.
And the lifelong dancer hasn’t let her studies distract from her craft; Mund was also a cheerleader and dancer for Brown’s athletic teams. Her jazz performances are graceful yet sassy, marrying precise, fluid choreography with a personality that bubbles over.Also a Quality of Life finalist, the 23-year-old has been organizing fashion shows for the Make-A-Wish Foundation for 10 years, raising money so terminally ill North Dakota kids can get their “wishes” granted.
PREDICTION: She will continue to defy expectations.
3. Miss South Carolina, Suzi Roberts
Suzi Roberts is a 5-foot-1-inch firecracker. The bright eyed blonde lights up the stage with energy, whether stepping out in her swimsuit or showing off the dance skills honed through years of professional ballet training and cheering for the South Carolina Gamecocks (which are, full disclosure, this writer’s favorite team) and Atlanta Falcons.
The combination of cheer pep and classical skill makes 24-year-old Roberts’ dance performances incredibly entertaining and impressively challenging. The future law student is another Quality of Life finalist for her advocacy on behalf of children’s welfare. She’s worked with state senators, served as a guardian ad litem for kids in court and lobbied for an earned income tax credit that passed the South Carolina State House this year. Can you tell her favorite movie is Legally Blonde?
PREDICTION: One to cheer for.
4. Miss Alabama, Jessica Procter 21
Procter looks like the prototypical old-school beauty queen: flowing blonde hair, bright smile and a face fine enough for a porcelain doll. But this Southern belle is no delicate flower. Her lean, athletic body shows not just when she works the swimsuit competition, but even when posing for the casual photo (and Miss America judges often look for contestants who’ve developed that kind of tone, AKA put in hard work in the gym as well as, you know, in every other aspect of their lives…).
Growing up as the daughter of two music professors, Procter has perfected a warm, kind singing voice that enchants the audience. What really hooks you on Procter, though, is her refreshingly real, goofy personality. She’s constantly posting silly Instagram stories, often focusing on her avocado obsession (her fitness-focused Instagram account has her bitmoji inside an avocado as its profile picture). That combination of frank silliness and pageant poise could get her far.
PREDICTION: Finalist potential.
5. Miss Pennsylvania, Katie Schreckengast
Meet your new favorite beauty queen band geek. The 21 year-old Penn State student is a saxophonist and a passionate member of the Blue Band, even getting a few photos taken with her prized instrument during her official headshot photoshoot earlier this year. That said, her talent performance is anything but geeky: Scheckengast plays Beyonce’s “Listen” on an alto sax that her father passed down to her.
She exudes personality with a bright smile and warm authenticity, and joyfully shares her story of being adopted as an infant when she visits schools and does other speaking engagements as Miss Pennsylvania. Shreckengast’s parents adopted her from South Korea when she was six months old, and she uses that experience as her Miss America platform, encouraging others to openly discuss their own adoption paths and break down perceived stigmas about foreign adoption.
PREDICTION: She’ll hit a high note in talent.
6. Miss Georgia, Alyssa Beasley
If you had to crown a girl on eyebrows alone, Alyssa Beasley would be Miss America. Luckily for her, she’s got way more than eyebrows to carry her to the crown. The striking 19-year-old is a beautiful and athletic dancer, turning the often trite lyrical style into something you can’t look away from. Her dance training has helped sculpt her toned swimsuit body and put a smooth yet sassy spark in her walk.
Her years performing has also given her a cool confidence beyond her years. She is incredibly consistent on stage, challenging you to find the most minor of flaws. Spoiler alert: You won’t.
PREDICTION: Clear top 5 contender.
7. Miss Oklahoma, Triana Browne
In the state’s hyper-competitive pageant circuit, it’s almost unheard of to win Miss Oklahoma after never placing in the pageant before. But there are exceptions to every rule, and Triana Browne, 24, is exceptional! She entered her college’s pageant in 2016 because it came with a scholarship, and her tuition money was tight. She won, but didn’t make the first cut at Miss Oklahoma that summer. This year, she came back and took the crown.
Browne comes to the Miss America stage a relative pageant outsider who focused mostly on running track in college, and was even encouraged to try out for the 2020 Olympics. Her athlete’s discipline helped her get the crown, and now she’s using it to encourage open conversations to bridge “the great cultural divide,” drawing upon her own experience as a multi-racial woman. Winning the overall talent award over seasoned veterans at her state pageant, Browne might just be the whole package.
PREDICTION: She could reach the finish line.
8. Miss Utah, JessiKate Riley
JessiKate Riley, just like her name, is cute as a button. Fresh-faced with big blue eyes and long dark hair, the 20-year-old is beautiful yet approachable, like the popular girl in high school you could never hate on because she was too nice.
A classically trained violinist, her performance is one of the best in a pageant since Gretchen Carlson won Miss America performing “Ziguenerweisen” in 1988. And when she’s away from her treasured instrument — a 115-year-old Austrian violin she’s named Sam — Riley is literally climbing mountains to stay in top swimsuit shape.
PREDICTION: You’ll hear her making sweet music in the top 10.
The 2018 Miss America competition airs on Sunday, Sept. 10th at 9 p.m. EST on ABC.