Wilton High grad to compete in Miss Illinois USA pageant

More than one of Eleanor Clifford’s former Wilton High School classmates did a quick double take when they heard the studious University of Chicago sophomore was getting ready to take part in the Miss Illinois USA pageant. But that hasn’t deterred her from chasing a goal she has had since she was a little girl.

“They’ve been very surprised,” Ms. Clifford said by phone from Chicago on Monday. “I wasn’t quiet in high school, but I was definitely studious. I think there is still a stigma against pageants. There is a common idea that you can’t be smart and still do them. But I think you can be on stage and say something incredibly intelligent and know where you are, and where you’re going.”

For entry into the competition, Ms. Clifford has had to pass a series of interviews, and is currently raising funds for the entry fee on Indiegogo.com. The actual competition, she said, will involve a number of different events.

“This is run by the Miss Universe corporation, so there is no talent portion,” she said. “The slogan is constantly beautiful, and the bulk of the competition is based on interviews to find out what your story is, whether you’re an interesting girl to represent the state. You also walk the runway in an evening gown, and walk the runway in a swimsuit. It’s a combined search for a girl who is intelligent and able to speak her mind in a clear way.”

A debate team member and starring actress at Wilton High School, from which she graduated in 2012, Ms. Clifford is not at a loss for activities at the University of Chicago. In addition to roles in dramatic productions, membership in an on-campus a cappella group, and a recent decision to join the Delta Gamma sorority, Ms. Clifford is a research assistant with the University of Chicago Center for Clinical Cancer Genetics and Global Health.

As her entry’s “platform,” Ms. Clifford hopes to promote the need for medical patients to be fully educated on risk factors associated with their genetic makeup.

“I’m a contestant who cares about the cause she is supporting,” she said. “I’m inspired by all that I did [at the University Center for Clinical Cancer Genetics]. My platform is ‘making men and women aware of the risks they have for cancer, and other diseases.’ The amount of misinformation some of my patients come in with is inexcusable.”

Weekly patient contact through her role as a research assistant, she said, has shaped her desire to practice medicine in the future.

“Patient contact has been really eye-opening in terms of what I want to do for the rest of my life,” Ms. Clifford said. “I can see myself practicing medicine somewhere down the line.”

For Ms. Clifford, the Miss Illinois USA pageant is more than a simple beauty pageant. In many ways, it is proof that she has reached a point in her life where she is confident in her ability to juggle life’s tasks while still leaving enough room for herself.

“I think this is a dream that a lot of little girls have. But growing up in Wilton, school was always the priority,” she said. “Life was definitely more about where I wanted to be in an academic sense. Now that I know where I’m going, I’m in a better place to compete in the pageant, and a better role model for following your dreams and finding a balance with the things that you care about.”

After leaving Wilton for Chicago last year, Ms. Clifford found the ability to take a step back from her daily routine to focus on her own needs and desires. This ability, she said, is something that will set her ahead of the competition in Illinois.

“I’ve always been very sure of myself. I’ve never had problems with confidence, but getting to Chicago and finding my own way has really made me look back at who I really am. That’s something that a lot of women haven’t had the chance to do,” she said. “Stepping out and examining those things gives me a leg up on the competition.”

Ms. Clifford also said on Monday that her status as a “different kind” of competitor will help her stand out from other girls in the pageant. A major problem with the stereotype of a pageant competitor, she said, is its focus on the physical aspect of the competition.

“I guess pageants attract a kind of girl who sees it as what it’s called: a beauty pageant. They think that it’s about getting up and parading your body. To them, their platform is something they make up to be in the pageant.”

In her case, however, the superficial side of the pageant is only as important as the other, more cerebral side.

“There are problems with supporting girls who have the opposite opinion [than the stereotype]. Yes, I’m confident in my looks, but this is a great way to show my platform to the world,” she said.

For current Wilton High students, Ms. Clifford implored them to work toward both success and happiness.

“I think I did high school well. Maybe I stressed out too much because of the atmosphere of stress that is all around in Wilton,” she said with a laugh. “I think life is all about doing these little things that seem random, but are deep in your heart. Life has to be a balance. You can’t please everyone, because you need to check in with yourself and make yourself happy. That wasn’t something I really grasped in high school. It was more about upholding the image of the town that everyone has to feel on their shoulders.”

In answering a question on why she feels her Wilton neighbors should contribute to her fund-raising campaign, Ms. Clifford’s answer was simple.

“I think I am a contestant of the kind that there aren’t a lot of. The fact that you’re supporting someone who genuinely wants this for the opportunities it will open up seems like a great reason to me.”

To contribute to Ms. Clifford’s campaign, visit indiegogo.com/projects/miss-illinois-usa.