When Tiara Pennington arrived at Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun Arena this week to compete in the Miss America pageant, she found herself right in the middle of what some might think is a pageant contestant’s worst nightmare: Miss Alabama had nothing to wear.
An oversized black trunk, filled with gowns and other outfits she planned to wear during the competition, didn’t make the flight from Atlanta to New Haven.
But with the poise of a woman who has been singing opera from a young age and competing in pageants on a national stage since her teens, Pennington didn’t panic.
“I wasn’t that worried about it,” she says. “I said I’m not going to worry myself about it, because eventually, it’ll get here. And it did.”
Pennington begins her quest for the Miss America crown Sunday with her interview with the judges, followed by two preliminary rounds. It’s all leading up to the final pageant night, Dec. 19, when one young woman will be crowned Miss America 2020. (It will air live at 7 p.m on NBC).
For Pennington, a junior at the University of Alabama, this week is the culmination of a pageant trek that has earned her thousands of dollars in scholarships, first in the Alabama’s Rising Stars mentoring program, then as Miss Alabama’s Outstanding Teen and, this year, as Miss Alabama.
“She was absolutely born to do this,” says Nan Teninbaum, president of the Miss Alabama Scholarship Organization.
And she’s not just talking about being named, Tiara, although we’ll get to that. She’s also talking about her mother, Dedra Eastland Pennington, herself a Miss Alabama contestant in the 1980s. She and Tiara’s grandmother have also served as directors of local pageants.
It was in that capacity that Eastland Pennington, by way of her husband, inadvertently found the prescient first name for her daughter.
“She was director for a local preliminary, and while she was online trying to find a crown for her soon-to-be winner, my dad walked in and asked her what she was doing,” Tiara Pennington says. “She said, ‘I’m looking for tiaras.’ That’s how I got my name. … They named me Tiara, and here I am Miss Alabama.”
Her mother also plays a big part in Tiara’s social impact initiative, the new term for the contestants’ platforms. Pennington’s is Psoriasis Take Action Alabama, part of the National Psoriasis Foundation. Both her mother and uncle suffer from psoriasis, a skin condition, and psoriatic arthritis, which afflicts some people with psoriasis.
“This disease is much more than skin deep,” Tiara Pennington says. “A lot of people see it as a simple rash, but I’ve watched my mother suffer. It causes serious pain, and she has trouble walking and standing.”
She’ll no doubt talk about her initiative during Sunday’s interview with the judges, and on Sunday night she takes to the stage for her talent preliminary. As she did in the Miss Alabama Pageant, Pennington will sing “Nessun Dorma” from the opera “Turandot.”
“I really love this piece, and it has special meaning to me,” Pennington, 21, says of the Italian aria usually sung by male singers. “I wanted to sing it years ago but never felt confident enough to sing it the way I wanted to – it portrayed being in love and was in a different language, and I was a teen. Now that I’m older, I can really connect with the song.”
Since being crowned Miss Alabama, Pennington has traveled the state, appearing at pageants and other events. She is taking a year off from college but, win or lose at Miss America, plans to return to finish her political science degree and go to law school.
But first things first. She’s going to do the best she can do at Miss America and is looking forward to the competition.
“A lot of the nervousness that I have had for different things has gone out the window,” Pennington says. “I’ve prepared the best that I can prepare. This is a moment I’ve waited for my whole entire life. I’m sure I’ll have nervous energy, but nothing that will keep me from doing my best on stage.”