"Wear it when you have the evening gown competition," said Anise Jenkins, a longtime D.C. statehood activist, when she handed Haely Jardas a bright red hat with "Free D.C." emblazoned in white letters.
Jardas, 24, is headed to Atlantic City, N.J., on Sunday to compete in the Miss America pageant as Miss District of Columbia 2015. By night, the tall, red-haired woman wears the sparkly crown and white Miss D.C. sash, but by day she dons a U.S. Senate lanyard as the communications director for D.C. shadow Sen. Paul Strauss.
On Thursday night, Strauss and other D.C. officials including Mayor Muriel Bowser and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., gathered at the ceremonial conference room in the John A. Wilson Building to celebrate Jardas before the competition. For the officials, Jardas' place on the national stage is not just a chance to win a crown, a scholarship, and some bragging rights, but one to educate the country about D.C.'s lack of representation.
"Our biggest problem in the District of Columbia, in terms of getting statehood, is the fact that most Americans do not understand that we do not have the same rights as everybody else," shadow Sen. Michael D. Brown told the group. "So I can't tell you how important it is, and how much hope it gives us, to have a beautiful, intelligent, poised, young woman like this represent us on the national stage."
Brown joked that he and Strauss have been "practicing our hip-hop," in case Jardas needed any backup dancers for her performance. He also elicited laughs from the crowd when he quipped, "I must admit Haely, when you first came, I was a little jealous because everybody always said that Paul was the smart one and I was the pretty one. But I've learned to adjust."
Jardas is originally from Fort Myers, Fla., and came to D.C. to attend American University and study broadcast journalism and theater performance, but she now considers the District her home. She competed in the Miss D.C. pageant in 2010, 2011 and 2012, and decided to return to the competition in her final year of eligibility.
"This year was my last year so I just gave it all I got, and now I'm going to Miss America," Jardas told HOH. "It's so exciting! I can't wait. I can't wait to be there. I can't wait to see everyone again and get to be on stage."
Jardas prevailed as Miss D.C. thanks in part to her unique rendition of Taylor Swift's "Blank Space," and her deeply personal cause. Her platform, "Mental Health Matters," seeks to eradicate the stigma against those with mental health disorders. Jardas struggles with anxiety disorder.
The officials who spoke at the reception were hopeful Jardas could bring the Miss America crown back to D.C., which hasn't had a winner since the first Miss America pageant in 1921.
Even if she doesn't prevail, the officials noted that because Jardas works each day to promote D.C. statehood, she is uniquely positioned to educate the people she meets about D.C. She said she's already been spreading the word to her fellow contestants.
"[D.C.] really is my home," Jardas told the crowd at the reception. "I get very upset when people don't understand what we deal with here in D.C., don't understand the issues. And I've spent a lot of time talking to a lot of the contestants already, a lot of people while I've been at events for Miss America."
"I so look forward to representing D.C. on a national stage, where I am standing there with every other girl, with equal representation," she said, "even if that's the only place where we've got it right now."
The next few weeks involve a series of events for Jardas and her fellow contestants, culminating in the final competition, which will be broadcast Sept. 13 at 9 p.m. on ABC.
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