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Looking Back at a Unique Experience

Miss Massachusetts Erika Ebbel Says Judges Were Not Seeking MIT Graduates

By Marie Y. Thibault

Miss Massachusetts, Erika N. Ebbel ’04, recently retuned from a busy 18 days at the Miss America Pageant. An MIT graduate who earned a degree in Chemistry, Ebbel agreed to talk to me recently. Although she didn’t end up placing in the competition, Ebbel is the first MIT graduate ever to win the Miss Massachusetts title.

The Tech: Going back in time a little bit... how were you feeling before you left for the Miss America Pageant?

Erika Ebbel: Well, I was hoping that I was prepared. We had spent the greater portion of the summer getting ready for all the different areas of competition. I spent a lot of time on my platform. I have my own non--profit 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization called the Whiz Kids Foundation. The goal of the organization is to get kids interested in math and science. I’ve been working with people up in the state house... trying to get the program incorporated into various school curricula all over the state of Massachusetts and all over the country. So, I was trying to do everything at once. It was hectic. You know, you have to get a wardrobe for the contest and prepare for interview and talent. It was a lot of work, actually -- just different from the normal MIT work.

TT: What events were scheduled for your time in Atlantic City?

EE: For the first five days we were in Washington D.C. We had appearances that were scheduled there. For example, they had a World War II Memorial Service at the World War II Monument. We also had cocktail parties every night... Basically, it was a mix of sightseeing for us and just making appearances. They took us on a trolley ride of Washington D.C. and a cruise on the Potomac. It was a lot of fun and it was a great way to meet all the rest of the contestants. After those five days we went to Atlantic City. Mostly Atlantic City was rehearsals for the show and filming something called the Parade of States where they go through all the states...

TT: Yeah, you go up there and say “Hi, I’m Erika Ebbel...”

EE: Yeah, “I’m Miss Massachusetts.” Yeah, you get really irritated saying that -- but they film you in different locations saying that for the TV telecast.

TT: So, on to the competition part. What do you think was your strongest part of the competition, and what was your weakest?

EE: Well, probably talent, of the on-stage competition... you start with your strength, that’s sort of the trend. So I started with talent. I won talent that night -- that was about 6000 dollars for a 2-minute piece [Ebbel played Fantasie Impromptu by Chopin on the piano].

TT: What kind of feeling did you get from that?

EE: It was very exciting -- it was actually a positive. I think a lot of people took that as a positive. My weakest area was probably swimsuit, although I had a trainer for a year and I was in top-notch physical shape. I don’t think they were looking for physical shape.

TT: So, how did you feel about the other contestants?

EE: All in all, they were very nice. Mostly people who had career aspirations and people who -- some of them started this, this was their first time and some of them have been doing this for years. For example, Louisiana, the girl who was first runner-up. She was Louisiana Teen USA, she was Louisiana USA, and now Louisiana America, and you know, she did very well. Sometimes, these contests, you never know what they’re looking for. You just have to go with the flow and see what happens.

TT: When the cut to the top ten finalists was made, and you weren’t in it, how did you feel?

EE: I was disappointed, just because -- I think everybody who didn’t make it -- I think if you weren’t disappointed something was wrong. You know, you spent a lot of time there and you wanted to do as best as you could -- make a strong showing for your state. But, to be totally honest with you, looking at the top ten, who they were, what their backgrounds were, it made it easier for me, because it was obvious they weren’t looking for somebody like me. Had the top ten been a different group of people, I would have said, “Oh, jeez, I must have really done something wrong,” but I think that the judges were mostly entertainers, and they shared very little in common with me.

TT: How do you think MIT, your education here, prepared you for this competition?

EE: Initially, I signed up to participate in this contest because it was sold to me as a scholarship pageant... The money that you win goes towards schooling and at the local level, you know, you start with your interview and then you do all areas of on-stage competition after. There’s a heavy emphasis on interview, on-stage question, talent. This year they changed the whole order of Miss America. Interview was last. So, they saw all of your areas of on-stage competition first, which is kind of strange, because usually -- I mean the most important role is the interview. That’s what you’d be doing as Miss America, but instead they wanted to see your talent, your swimsuit, your casual wear, evening gown first. So, you know, this kind of correlates back to what they were looking for. After hearing that that was what they were going to do, it was difficult to know what exactly they wanted and who they wanted. And, they made that really clear with their selections and that’s fine...

I think that in terms of the public speaking part, the hard work part, MIT has helped, especially with the hard work. I mean, if you can survive this place, I think you can get all your paperwork in on time and brunt the rehearsals of the pageant. I would also say that you do gain perseverance. It took me three years to win Miss Massachusetts and had I been one of those people who just sort of gave up after the first shot I wouldn’t have made it this far. So, it helps in terms of your longevity and your ability to really fight hard. And I was a fighter, all the way through...

TT: Looking back on it all how do feel about the entire experience?

EE: That’s funny, the president of Miss Massachusetts just asked me that question. He wanted to know if “knowing what I know now would I have competed?” Oh yes, I would have, because, and you know, a lot of people don’t understand this, but winning the title is one thing. What you choose to do with it is something else... people don’t just come up to you and start bowing in front of you just because you’re Miss Massachusetts, but it makes making connections that much easier. So, it would have been nice to be Miss America, it would have been nice to win, but more importantly, all of the connections that I’ve made along the way. Promoting my non-profit, you know, all of these things have become so much easier with my title. I was in D.C. the other day, at a fundraiser, trying to pull for my program, and now, because I’m Miss Massachusetts, people have heard about me. It’s given me exposure. The MIT alumni office has been wonderful in spreading the word around and it’s made it that much easier for me to work with other organizations, work with other companies for my program. And I think that is the key, because in the long run, after your year is over, you’re still Miss Massachusetts of the past, but what you choose to do with what you have now is what will linger on in the following years. We’ll see where it all leads and what happens to me, but I think I’m very glad that I did it.

TT: What else are you going to do in the next year?

EE: I’m going to be doing research, just going to be working. It was just because of the way the timing worked out, being gone for all of September, doesn’t make going to school a possibility. So, I’m going to be working, promoting my non-profit, trying to raise as much money for it as possible, expand. I actually have another company, I design t-shirts. I’d like to see that business take off a little more. But for the most part, just working in a lab, doing research.

TT: Working in a lab, what are you...

EE: It’s going to be through the Bedford VA Hospital. Basically, we’re looking at neurodegenerative diseases and ways of treating them... That’s going to be for the year and then hopefully in the fall of 2005 I’ll start some other program, [such as] MD/PhD.