Dressed in an arresting royal blue and black dress and heels, 15-year-old Kaitlyn Benninger stepped out from behind the curtain. Hundreds of faces eagerly watched her every move. It was her first time on a big stage. But rather than feel intimidated, the Pennsburg resident said she felt something unexpected – comfortable, confident and welcomed.
Benninger competed this past weekend in the Miss Pennsylvania Teen USA pageant held at the Hyatt Regency International Airport Hotel in Pittsburgh. Unlike many of her fellow contestants, this was her first-ever pageant. She didn’t have years of practice, coaching and appearances behind her. But she didn’t let that sway her from taking part in the event, thanks to her mom, Tara.
“A friend said pageants are a really great way to get scholarships and learn poise,” Tara Benninger said of submitting her daughter’s photo to eventually vie for the state title. “I think it’s a great way for her personally to grow in poise, goal-setting and confidence. It’s also a great way to open doors and crate career and educational opportunities.”
The younger Benninger agreed.
“I thought it would be a great way to boost my confidence and try something different and new,” she said. “The thought of being onstage and showing the judges that I am unique and special in my own way is exciting. The thought of representing Pennsylvania is very exciting too.”
After a lot of time spent fielding potential interview questions, selecting outfits for competition, physical training and experimenting with hair and makeup, which would all be done by her mom, the family began their road trip to western PA on Thursday.
The events after that amounted to a bit of a whirlwind. Upon checking in and meeting with coaches and fellow contestants Friday, Katie took to the runway to strut her stuff in casual wear. Saturday she learned and perfected a dance routine with her fellow contestants to execute alongside 2010 American Idol performer Tim Urban during the competition. Later that day she stepped out in a swimsuit for round one, an evening gown competition for round two and, finally, and interview competition where she was asked about everything from her career aspirations to who she would choose to dine with, living or dead, if she had the chance.
Benninger, who didn’t place, said the competition’s top performers were then announced. Miss Pennsylvania Teen USA, Sydney Robertson of Williamsport, was later crowned.
“It was a fantastic experience,” Benninger said of being a part of the competition. “I thought it would be a lot more intimidating; be politically based but it wasn’t. When I went on stage I felt beautiful, like the light in the room. All the girls were so nice and friendly and I had a great time.”
“I used to think pageants were all about beauty, but that is no longer true,” her mom said. “It’s a great way for them to achieve personal and educational goals for the future.”
And Benninger has opened some doors for herself by taking part in the pageant. Not only did she have the fun experience of playing piano for music industry professional Urban, she was also invited to walk in a runway benefit for designer Pamela Ptak, of Project Runway fame. Ptak, who designed the gown Benninger wore in the competition, recently founded the Arts and Fashion Institute with her husband, Scott Hanna, in Riegelsville, Bucks County.
Benninger said she is entertaining the option of modeling in the future in addition to realizing her dreams of becoming a novelist.
A student at Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Arts, the teen said she also made several valuable friendships with other contestants, including Robertson, which she foresees carrying into the years to come.
“Young girls should try it,” she said of the experience. “Everybody has a great chance. Skeptics would mostly think, given the stereotypes, that pageants are all about [how you look] and how contestants are perfect. That’s not at all what it is. It gives girls a great opportunity to shine.”