To have one Mrs. Kansas come from Lawrence is rare. But two — in the same year? That's just freaky.
In late March, 27-year-old event planner Rachel Karwas was crowned Mrs. Kansas, just weeks after Elizabeth Stephens, a 32-year-old homeless-shelter employee, earned the same title. Confused yet?
Some of you probably didn't even know there is such thing as Mrs. United States (Karwas' pageant) or Mrs. America (Stephens'). The competitions are for older, married woman, distinguishing them from the youth-and-beauty-oriented Miss America or Universe.
Still perplexed? Just know that Lawrence is home to two beauty queens in 2013. And they couldn't be any more different.
Karwas has long wanted to be a pageant winner. She got into the "Miss" contests in 2009, after graduating from Kansas University. But she says she eventually "aged out" of the competitions (in reality, she could pass for an undergraduate), and married Alex Karwas, a doctoral candidate in aerospace engineering at KU. She entered Mrs. Kansas United States — and, on March 24, finally got that elusive crown.
Stephens, on the other hand, had never entered any beauty pageants (she did use to model), but opted to try the Mrs. America contest as a way to raise awareness about family homelessness, an issue near and dear to the married mother of three. Stephens grew up poor, and later became an advocate for the less fortunate through her work as the family programs director at the Lawrence Community Shelter. If she didn't have that cause behind her, she says, she never would have entered the pageant.
As different as their paths to Mrs. Kansas were, both, coincidentally, were crowned in Missouri — Karwas, in St. Joseph; Stephens, in Branson.
Karwas, who works at Watson Library at KU, also is using her platform for good, as she tries to increase the public's familiarity with childhood cancer. The illness impacted someone close to her: Karen Elliott, the executive coordinator of pageant organizer VanBros and Associates, whose grandson Donald "Ross" Elliott III died of leukemia in 2011 at the age of three. Karwas is now raising funds for two charities dedicated to the late child — Warriors for Ross and Ross' Foundation — and recently participated in the CureSearch Walk in Kansas City, Kan., in his memory.
"What was most alarming to me was how common it was," Karwas said of childhood cancer. "I'm just surprised how many children are diagnosed with it and also how many survive."
The Plano, Texas, native will soon head to pageant boot camp, where she and her sister queens from surrounding states will work tirelessly to perfect their runway walk and interviewing ability. Karwas said the devotion and commitment required is akin to any athletic competition.
"I've always really enjoyed the self-improvement aspect of pageants: putting yourself out there and getting out of your comfort zone," she said. "Afterward you take a step back and figure out what you can improve upon."
She thinks other women could benefit from the experience. Thus she also wants to spread the word about the existence of pageants such as Mrs. United States and Mrs. America
Just don't get the two confused.
While Mrs. America was the first pageant of its kind, Mrs. United States claims to be the biggest (though Mrs. America says that combined with its international competition, Mrs. World, it is the largest). Mrs. America accepts entrants from the 50 states plus the District of Columbia; Mrs. United States also lets residents of the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Guam compete. Mrs. United States' prize is a 23-piece set of nutritional cookware, a countertop water filtration system and 17-piece cutlery set guaranteed for life; Mrs. America gets jewelry and clothes.
But what about older women who are single, divorced or widowed? They shouldn't feel left out, since there is also — wait for it — a Ms. America pageant. Unfortunately neither Lawrence nor the state of Kansas will have a representative in this year's contest.