“Participants in our program have the opportunity to take home their share of more than $25,000 in cash and prizes being awarded at the Miss Virginia state pageant and over $500,000 in cash, prizes, college scholarships and a new 2015 Ford Mustang convertible being awarded at the national pageant.”

–letter from the National American Miss contest, sent to a Virginia resident

This is a bit of departure for The Fact Checker, since we normally focus on political statements. A reader’s daughter received this letter in the mail; in fact, many students in the girl’s school received similar letters. Perhaps mindful of John Oliver’s takedown of the Miss America contest, the reader asked us to vet the numbers in the solicitation. (Note that the letter above has “college scholarships” in boldface type.) So we decided to investigate and are presenting the results as a reader service for families considering participation in National American Miss contests.

The Facts

The National American Miss is a pageant contest for girls in either five different age groups (at the state level) or six (at the national level), ranging from as young as age 4 to as old as 20. The organization bills itself as less of a “beauty pageant” and more as a way to help girls build confidence and communication skills. About 60 percent of the scoring is based on communications skills rather than appearance. For participants under the age of 12, there is a “no make-up” rule. (Here are some videos of recent competitions.)

The organization’s Web site—which displays video claiming “more than $1 million in cash, awards and prizes across the country”–is rather vague about the types of prizes offered and also about the possible costs involved.

Steve Mayes, national director of the contest, acknowledged that is a mistake. “We will add more detail to our materials and information sessions,” he said. “Through this we will be better able to inform and serve families.”

Mayes provided extensive documentation of the prizes awarded at the state and national level, including a full breakdown of the checks given at the last national contest (with names of recipients obscured). He asserted that the numbers actually showed that awards totaled $47,580 (rather than $25,000) for the state contests and $623,035 (rather than $500,000) for the national contest.

But those numbers include the cost of the crowns, banners and other paraphernalia given to winners, which for the national contest total nearly $28,000.  There’s also nearly $50,000 allotted for $22 trophies given to participants. Winners of the state pageants earn a waiver of $795 participation fee, so that’s another $100,000. And there is nearly $78,000 devoted to complimentary hotel stays, more than $50,000 for complimentary Disneyland tickets, as well as $21,000 for flowers.

The organization also plans to give out six $149 iPod Nanos and six $110 digital cameras, for a cost of about $1,500.

Those items certainly fall under the catch-phrase of “prizes” but what about the cash and college scholarships? Those numbers are smaller.

The actual cash awards are listed as totaling $76,480, while there is another $15,000 for $1,000 scholarship checks. (Twelve of these checks are for modeling courses.) There are also six $325 scholarship checks. So the cash and scholarship portion of the prize pool totals less than $100,000. (Mayes noted that the year before, the organization ended up giving out more than $90,000 in checks, which he said “is a reflection of our policy that we are always certain to award more than we publish.”)

Unlike the Miss America contest, which according to Oliver gave out scholarships unlikely to be used, Mayes said that National Miss ten years ago discontinued the practice of giving out scholarship certificates, which were often lost by the time the child was ready for college.

As a practical solution, we provide all cash awards and scholarships as checks, written in full at the time of the event, to the recipient with an admonishment to use the funds for their education,” he said. “The checks are handed to the parent in person and signed for at the time of receipt.” Thus the only specific scholarship award is for a modeling course.

In last year’s competition, the records provided by Mayes show the six top winners in the “National America Miss” category received a $5,000 check. (These are competitors who were state title winners, and thus had their entry fee waived.) The next biggest check was for $2,000, for the six winners of the “All-America Miss.” (These competitors qualified in the state pageant, but were required to pay the $795 entry fee.)  Then there were checks for $1,000 or $800 for winners of individual talent contests. The most a runner-up can win is $250; the fourth runner-up wins $100.

National American Miss’s policy is to give out lots of checks—129 were given in 2014—rather than one big cash award, Mayes said. So it has a variety of contests that result in possible prizes, such as for art, academic achievement, talent or spokesmodel.

Finally, there is the Mustang V6 convertible, valued at $29,300. It is given as a door prize, so everyone has an equal shot at it.

We won’t go too much detail into the state contests, except to say the breakdown is similar, with actual cash and modeling scholarships totaling $23,425. The biggest check awarded is $1,000.

Given there are about 675 participants in the national contest, the odds of winning something are not bad, but the entry fees and other costs can add up.

The state event has an entry fee of $480, plus a mandatory $40 for an “opening production number outfit,” and $15 for final show admission tickets. The optional contests typically have a fee of $75, though some are free.

The national event, as noted above, has an entry fee of $795, along with $80 for the “opening production number outfit,” and $20 for final show admission tickets. The optional contests are typically $175. Of course, none of this includes the cost of dresses, though Mayes noted the older teens can use a prom dress.

So, just to put this in perspective, competitors who do not win the state competitions but place high enough to compete nationally will have spent almost $1,500 in fees (not counting travel costs, clothing and other incidentals, or optional contests) in order to vie for a top prize of $2,000.

The winners of the state contests, however, will only have paid the initial state entry fees (and would have won $1,000) and have a shot of winning $5,000.

Mayes notes that such fees and travel expenses can also quickly add up “for children’s sporting, coaching, dance, camp, and other events such as math competitions and leadership conferences.”

The Bottom Line

We appreciate Mayes’s willingness to be transparent about the various prizes and costs associated with the National American Miss, but The Fact Checker believes the organization should make its Web site and literature much more detailed about the actual amounts that are awarded.

Asserting a person could win “their share” of such broad figures as $500,000 or even $1 million can be misinterpreted, especially when the letter highlights the words “college scholarship.” It would be much clearer to say the top prize offered is $5,000–if one first wins a state competition.

As for “college scholarships,” most of the cash awards are not going to pay for very much tuition. Moreover, because all but the modeling awards are given in cash, the phrase “college scholarship” appears to be a misnomer and should be removed from the advertising.

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