Backstage, a room is filled with young women rushing around. Some are stretching, some are singing opera and others are putting on their eveningwear to prepare for an interview. Nerves are running high.
But the craziness halts on stage. It’s just the contestant and the audience now. The lights shine brightly and adrenaline pumps.
This is the life of UF student and pageant contestant Leah Roddenberry.
Roddenberry won first runner-up at the Miss Florida competition June 29. She also received the Newcomer award and the Quality of Life award. She competed after winning Miss University of Florida in March, Roddenberry said.
Roddenberry, a 20-year-old UF family, youth and community sciences junior, won $1,000 at Miss UF and $8,000 at Miss Florida. The money will fund her education, she said.
The Miss Florida competition includes an interview process, an onstage question, red carpet eveningwear and a social initiative impact statement, said Miss Florida executive director Keith Williams.
Williams said Roddenberry stood out to the judges.
“She was prepared,” he said. “She knew what she wanted to do. She went in focused and had a very good outcome.”
Roddenberry is “talented and smart,” Williams said. Unfortunately, her scores weren’t high enough to win the overall competition.
The scores are sealed, so there’s no telling why that’s the case, he said. And for Williams, the hardest part of the competition is there can only be one winner. The candidates are all deserving of the title, he said.
The Miss UF pageant was a bit different from Miss Florida. At the Miss UF pageant, there were five different elements of competition: a private interview, an onstage question, eveningwear, talent and swimwear, said Miss UF director Chloe Judge.
In the upcoming year, rules are changing, she said.
There will no longer be a swimsuit portion, and the competition will also add a social impact statement. These changes are nationwide as part of the Miss America 2.0 rules -- a new version of Miss America to reflect inclusiveness.
Miss UF is a local preliminary competition, Judge said. This means one must win Miss UF or another local pageant in order to move on to Miss Florida. The winner of Miss Florida will then compete in the Miss America pageant, which airs live on ABC on Sept. 9 from Atlantic City, New Jersey.
The biggest portions of the competition are interview and talent because the organization wants to ensure the person who wins is positive, well-spoken and intelligent, Judge said.
Miss UF wasn’t the first time Roddenberry was involved in the world of pageantry.
She’s been showcasing her talent since she was 6 and was part of the Sunshine Princess Program, where Miss Florida contestants mentor young girls, Roddenberry said. The program is designed to introduce young girls to the Miss Florida and Miss America program at a young age -- allowing them to explore the world of pageantry.
Roddenberry’s mentor was UF alumna and ESPN reporter Laura Rutledge.
Roddenberry was Rutledge’s Sunshine Princess in 2011, said Rutledge. The two got to share the stage together when Rutledge won Miss Florida. To spend time together, the two would make crafts or dance.
Rutledge feels Roddenberry also mentored her back in the day.
“I still think Leah taught me more than I ever taught her,” Rutledge said. “She was so special then and has grown into an amazing young woman.”
Roddenberry also helped calm Rutledge down whenever she would get nervous.
“Leah always impressed me with her intelligence and her innate calm,” she said. “She was always incredibly thoughtful and kind and even though she was a lot younger, she actually made me feel more comfortable in moments where I was nervous.”
Rutledge still supports her mentee and loves to watch Roddenberry on stage. To her, she is an example of young women everywhere.
“Leah walks into the room and instantly you know there is something unique about her, and that grabs your attention,” she said. “She is radiant, and that shines from the inside out.”
Roddenberry also learned from Rutledge, and says the Sunshine Princess Program inspired her to compete in pageants.
“I saw how accomplished these young women were,” Roddenberry said. “And all the things they were achieving due to this program — how it grew them for the real world — in their careers and job interviews.”
At 13, Roddenberry started competing in the Outstanding Teen Program, she said. Roddenberry was Miss Florida’s Outstanding Teen in 2015.
Roddenberry said pageantry has taught her important life lessons, from interview skills to being a community advocate.
She keeps up with politics and current events to ensure she can give reason to her opinion in her interviews and stays active in her community.
Roddenberry started her own student organization at UF called Ignite Political Power in Every Young Woman in 2018 with the goal of empowering young women to be active in their communities and take on leadership positions, she said.
She’s also involved with her Panhellenic sorority Alpha Delta Pi, Accent Speakers Bureau, Students Taking Action Against Racism and more.
Roddenberry said her favorite section of a pageant is talent by far. She loves to dance and is part of the UF Dazzlers, dancing on the sidelines at sporting events.
Dance is special to her because, at 17, she was told she might never dance again. At 17, she had spinal fusion surgery due to her scoliosis. She had a 63 degree curvature and had to get her back corrected, she said.
And although she’s not the same dancer she was before the surgery, she said she’s grateful to be able to pursue her passion and feels the experience helped her in pageants.
“I think it's helped me because it's taught me that I have grit and perseverance,” she said. “You can't let these obstacles stop you from pursuing your passions.”
Jazz is her favorite dance style because of its upbeat sound, she said.
Roddenberry said she loves pageants for the sisterhood it creates. She feels the friendships she’s made are strong, and the women she competes with push her to be a better version of herself.
“I think a lot of people have misconceptions about pageantry, or pageants in general, and think of Toddlers and Tiaras, but that’s so not true,” Roddenberry said. “The Miss Florida, Miss America organization works to empower young women to find their voice — find their passion.”
Roddenberry believes pageantry is empowering and encourages everyone to get involved in some way.
“Growing up, I was so shy . . . I was afraid to raise my hand in class and scared of what other people thought,” Roddenberry said. “But this organization has taught me to use my voice and not be afraid to share my opinions.”