BY LEXI CHURCHILL CONTRIBUTING WRITER PHOTOS PROVIDED BY ERIN O’FLAHERTY, DAVID PICKERING AND MATT BOYD
Miss Missouri Erin O’Flaherty leaves a legacy of suicide prevention and LGBTQ pride.
Growing up, Miss Missouri Erin O’Flaherty did not practice her runway walk in heels or drown her curls in hairspray behind pageant doors. Instead, she sprinted down soccer elds with her auburn hair pulled back in a ponytail and par- ticipated in 4H, a local leadership organization.
In high school, O’Flaherty was accepted into a track for advanced students. ere, she accelerated far more quickly than normal. At age 15 she began looking at colleges, the same year as her older sister, Justin. O’Flaherty had always been on the move with club soccer and bal- ancing time between her mother in South Carolina and her father in Ohio. She had learned to love the travel, so she looked far away for her university of choice.
When it came time to make a decision, she was torn between Clemson, the College of Charleston and the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Her sister went with Clemson, so O’Flaherty decided to head the opposite direction to UCF. One particular pro- gram sealed her decision.
FIRST STEPS INTO PAGEANTRY
UCF’s Lead Scholars Academy program functioned as an honors and involvement organization that placed O’Flaherty in the same dorm as the other members. at was the starting base she needed in such a foreign place.
Once on her feet at UCF, she utilized her network of lead schol- ars to reach the involvement requirements of the organization. Coincidentally, the program led to pageantry. The current Miss UCF titleholder was also in the underclassmen organization. A er meeting and befriending her, O’Flaherty decided to enter the school competition.
Although her competitive soccer career had kept O’Flaherty away from pageants growing up, she had managed to squeeze in local talent competitions here and there. She was always singing.
Her greatest challenge was behind the scenes.
“ The biggest adjustment for me was just going from playing on the club soccer team to guring out how to put on makeup,” O’Flaherty says. “It was those kinds of changes I really needed to work on. I had never really walked in heels — that kind of stuff .” For her audition, she sang Sarah McLachlan’s “In the Arms of an Angel.”
After making the cut as a candidate, O’Flaherty and her 22 com- petitors had appearance a er event a er rehearsal for the next six months leading up to the pageant. She picked up eyeliner and foundation tips along the way.
When the day nally came, she still felt like she had no clue what she was doing, yet she managed to place in the top ve.
“It wasn’t until then that my eyes were opened, and I thought that maybe I should really try to do something with this,” O’Flaherty says. “Just for being top ve I won $2,000 in scholarship money, and being an out-of-state student [paying more], that was really important to me.”
ANOTHER STEP UP, AND ONE BACK
In hopes of gaining enough experience to go back to school and claim the Miss UCF title, O’Flaherty took her newly realized sense of potential and signed up for the Sweeps Pageant, a large competition that handed out six local titles. Several months later she wore a sash with the title Miss Florida Everglades and was handed a ticket to compete in Miss Florida. at too, was a learning process.
“ That first year I definitely wasn’t prepared,” O’Flaherty says. “It takes a while to get acclimated to the pageant world and the Miss America system. I really wanted to do well and I was competitive, but I also was realistic about it.”
When she returned for her school’s competition, she felt as confident as ever. She had found her footing in the pageant world and was a second-time competitor. It was her year.
The process started o on a negative foot when the interview order was published. She would go rst. In the pageant world, that slot came with superstition. After all, the judges had nothing yet with which to compare. In retrospect, however, it didn’t seem that her placement in line mattered.
“I came out of my interview knowing that I hadn’t connected with them at all,” O’Flaherty says. “I had a feeling. I just knew.”
Nonetheless, she was determined to do her best on stage in hopes of still making the top ve. She was distraught when her name wasn’t called as a nalist, but knew it had been unlikely because of the un- successful interview.
It took one more year of experience within the Miss America system to put her on top at UCF. e contrast in competition results reminded her of an important pageant lesson.
“It was kind of crazy being in the top ve, to not placing, to win- ning,” O’Flaherty says. “I think that’s just the nature of this kind of thing. It’s very subjective. On any given day the results could be totally di erent.”
TAKING A BREAK
A er her year as Miss UCF concluded, so did her pageant career — at least for the time being.
“I thought I was done competing,” O’Flaherty says. “ ree years takes a lot out of you, having to be ‘on’ all the time. I had won some scholarship money, and I was really happy and ready to close that chapter in my life.”
Before her nal semester, she set her sights on St. Louis, Missouri, where she had been hired full time at Captiva Marketing a er intern- ing with them for the last three summers. From there, she nished her legal studies degree partially online, then on campus for her final semester.
THE MISSOURI LADDER
Months and months passed before the “pageant bug” bit her. With the bite, she was lled with nostalgia and a sense of longing for her previous pageant environment. Although she was intimidated by the idea of starting competitions in a new state, she missed the camara- derie and business the pageant world brought.
So, two years out of the pageant routine, O’Flaherty signed up for the local competition in Kansas City where she won the Miss City of Fountains crown.
From there, it was back and forth between St. Louis and Kansas City in preparation for the Miss Missouri pageant. Going into the state contest, O’Flaherty was the oldest candidate running. However, that wasn’t the label she was worried about. It crossed O’Flaherty’s mind that if she were to win, she would be the rst openly gay state titleholder in the system’s history.
Nonetheless, her mindset going into the competition was rather relaxed. Because she had been out of the pageant world for a few years, she didn’t have the weight of high expectations on her shoulders.
A solid interview and strong onstage performances in evening wear and swimsuit increased her con dence in the rst round. Although she didn’t receive a preliminary award indicating she was First in a category, she remained con dent that her performance was consistent across the board.
When the big night nally came, the contestants waited to hear their name among the nalists. Just when O’Flaherty settled into a satisfactory mindset, happy for the girls who were moving on, her name was called.
The rest of the night was a blur of onstage events and excitement. When she was crowned, O’Flaherty looked past the blinding lights to see her family jumping up and down in the audience. ey had traveled to her this time.
“I’m going to Miss America!” she realized.
A BIG STEP UP FOR HER CAUSE
The gap between her realization and the reality of the national pageant was only two months. at gave her time to brush up on current events and perfect her runway strut.
One thing that didn’t need any additional work was her platform of suicide awareness. at component was a decade in the making.
Her passion for prevention went back to her childhood. At age 13, O’Flaherty’s best friend took her own life, a loss she was not ready to deal with until college.
“Suicide is such a devastating loss, because so rare is there any kind of closure,” O’Flaherty says. “In the case of my best friend, there was no note, there was no explanation and we were only 13 on top of that. Who knows how to deal with that at 13?”
At UCF, O’Flaherty was nally ready to talk about her friend and take action. She found a network of support for suicide prevention and was quick to join. Once she began her pageant career, her platform was obvious.
Through her prevention e orts, O’Flaherty involved herself with the Trevor Project and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. While the former serves as a research foundation, gathering vital data, the latter works directly with those in need of prevention efforts.
“They go hand in hand. I wouldn’t know how to work with the people one-on-one without understanding the education behind it,” O’Flaherty says. “You can’t have one without the other.”
Although she didn’t win Miss America, O’Flaherty was still able to spread the suicide awareness in her time o screen. However, that was not for what she became best known.
After winning her state title, the story of her sexuality blew up on a big scale. It was a ground-breaking step for the LGBTQ community, as O’Flaherty added an aspect of diversity the pageant world had not yet seen.
“I never expected how much it would blow up, how big in actual news it would become,” O’Flaherty says. “I don’t think you can ever really prepare for that.”
Although she was admittedly nervous about the possibility of being the rst, especially in a more conservative state like Missouri, she saw a much di erent result. A swarm of supporters came out of the woodwork.
“I felt so much more supported,” O’Flaherty says. “I can’t tell you how many people have reached out to me through Facebook. I still can’t keep up with my messages. I knew I had this entire community behind me that was really excited about it.”
At Miss America, although the pageant didn’t go as she had hoped, she embraced the rest of her experience, meeting new friends and enjoying the onstage aspects of the prelim- inary rounds. And she knew that she had a community behind her to pick her up.
O’Flaherty’s impact was not measured by her placement in the national competition, but her philanthropic work and courage to simply be herself. •
“I’ve made my mark either way.”