The new Miss Philadelphia went from puck in the face to beauty queen

was crowned Miss Philadelphia, a step on the road to the Miss America pageant. RICHARD KAUFFMAN / Staff Photographer
was crowned Miss Philadelphia, a step on the road to the Miss America pageant. RICHARD KAUFFMAN / Staff Photographer (Lauren Bilski, a junior at Drexel University,)
Posted: April 03, 2012

Ten years ago on April 5, Lauren Bilski was on the edge of her 12th-row seat next to her father watching her beloved Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins play, when a hockey puck hurtled off the ice, slammed her in the mouth, fractured her jaw, and knocked out three teeth.

Her father, Joe, remembers hearing the sickening thud of the impact and turning to see his shocked daughter holding her face. Lauren, 10 at the time, remembers the blood drenching her favorite Penguins jersey, which all the team's players had signed.

"Now I'll never be pretty," she told her mother during the weeks that followed.

How wrong she was.

On Saturday night, Bilski was crowned Miss Philadelphia before a sold-out audience at Drexel University's Mandel Theater. The pageant serves as a preliminary round in the Miss America competition.

A junior at Drexel, where she is double-majoring in dance and physical therapy, the 20-year-old performed an original jazz dance to the Glee version of "Don't Rain on My Parade." She also spoke about her deep interest in working as an advocate for victims of traumatic brain injury.

She was inspired, she said, by a girl who was her dance student. "One day during class, she said she had a headache, so I called her mother and said she needed to go home."

The next day, she learned that the child, who was 7, had contracted encephalitis and was in a coma. Now 12, the girl is just learning to walk again.

Through their friendship, Bilski became a counselor with Camp Cranium, a one-week camp for children with brain injuries. "I go home and cry my eyes out every year," Bilski said. "But it's so amazing to see these kids who have been in car accidents or have cancer or who had strokes be able to go on zip lines or climb rock walls and go swimming."

The Miss Philadelphia pageant, now in its 91st year, is primarily a scholarship and community service program, said retired Army Col. Kevin McAleese, executive director of the organization for 16 years.

McAleese said he felt a special connection to the winner this year because he suffered a traumatic brain injury during a helicopter crash while serving in Iraq.

Bilski said: "I'm to go out in the community, working with vets and with children to help create programs and raise money for research."

McAleese thanked her, with tears welling. "It's going to make a tremendous, tremendous difference," he said.

As winner, Bilski will receive a scholarship of about $10,000 from TD Bank, the pageant sponsor, and a matching grant from Drexel. The university has offered more than $200,000 in scholarships to winners and runners-up since 1995, when it began hosting the competition.

The Miss Philadelphia Pageant was first held in 1921, and three Miss Philadelphians have won the Miss America title: Ruth Malcomson (1924), Rose Coyle (1936), and Frances Burke (1940).

The city pageant nearly disappeared before McAleese revived it in 1996. The Philadelphia event is now among the top five in scholarship awards among the 1,200 locals affiliated with the Miss America organization.

The Miss America pageant has had its detractors, particularly among women.

Decades after the 1968 protest in which 400 feminists descended on the Atlantic City Boardwalk to call for an end to the pageant, which they said objectified women, it survives.

After years of declining television viewership and a move from Atlantic City to Las Vegas, the pageant drew 8 million viewers this year, ABC reported.

Much has changed.

No longer does an announcer broadcast the contestants' breast, waist, and hip measurements. Rather than hire professional hairdressers and makeup artists, the women have to do their own prep. The bathing-suit competition has been renamed the "health and fitness" event. And aspiring to be a good wife and mother is not enough to qualify anymore - you have to be college material.

And yet, at a time when nearly 60 percent of college students in America are women, and Katniss Everdeen, the tough heroine of the Hunger Games trilogy, is the latest teen idol, questions linger. Isn't there something anachronistic about a scholarship event that requires women to be judged on looks as well as substance?

As Gracie Hart, Sandra Bullock's character in the 2000 film Miss Congeniality protested, "I'm not going to parade around in a swimsuit like some airhead bimbo . . . and [say] all she wants is world peace."

But Bilski, who was valedictorian of her high school class and who really was named Miss Congeniality in her first Miss Philadelphia competition in 2010, defends every aspect of the pageant.

"None of us may have the ideal body," she said during an interview the day after her coronation. "But you show the judges you are confident no matter what you wear."

Though some contestants invest heavily in preparing for beauty pageants, Bilski managed her bid on a budget.

For the health and fitness competition, she said, she wore a Victoria's Secret bikini. She bought the jeweled sapphire blue dress for the evening-wear event for $400 at Formals XO in the King of Prussia mall. She borrowed the royal blue shift she wore for the interview competition from a former Miss Philadelphia winner, a friend from Wilkes-Barre. She decorated her gray suede pumps with silk flowers she bought at Michael's Crafts. And the rhinestone and velvet-skirted leotard she wore for her talent portion was a dance costume she last wore when she was 13. (She cut it up and redesigned it with help from friends.)

Her father, a systems administrator for the local gas company, and her mother, Sharon, human resources manager for a podiatry group, have supported her all the way and say the pageant's sexist image is simply wrong.

"The organization has evolved so much," Bilski's mother said. "The women who have won have gone on to become doctors, lawyers, and professors."

Bilski, wearing the heavy silver crown bobby-pinned to her long, softly curled nut-brown hair, picked up a wooden box. With a French-manicured nail, she tapped the lid, which was shingled with small brass nameplates.

"This is the crown box," she said. "Every Miss Philadelphia since 1996 has her name on it. To have my name added to this list of women, I couldn't be more excited."


Contact Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com.

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