From self-doubt to Miss Philadelphia

Posted: March 04, 2013

It wasn't long ago that Francesca Ruscio would click through pictures of herself on the computer and think: "I'm ugly. I'm ugly. I'm fat. I look awful."

The 20-year-old Temple University student was diagnosed two years ago with polycystic ovary syndrome, a hormonal disorder in women that can cause fertility problems and long-term health complications, as well as physical changes such as weight gain.

She decided to fight the disorder's effects by changing her lifestyle and adopting a gluten-free, vegetarian, low-glycemic diet.

On Saturday night, the aspiring broadcast journalist from Jamison, Bucks County, was crowned Miss Philadelphia in front of more than 400 people at the Prince Theater in Center City, qualifying her for the Miss Pennsylvania contest in June.

Wearing a copper-colored gown covered in gemstones, "I felt at peace onstage," Ruscio said Sunday morning, sitting in a hotel room at the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown.

"I just stood there thinking, 'I have a beautiful dress on, and I'll be happy for whoever wins,'" said Ruscio, who competed against 16 other young women.

Also crowned Saturday, as Miss Philadelphia Outstanding Teen, was 16-year-old Abby Rodgers. The Fox Chase resident and junior at St. Basil Academy in Jenkintown learned she had won last month after an open-call audition.

Ruscio sang an Italian opera piece, Il Bacio, during Saturday's pageant, which is part of the Miss America competition. She received a $10,000 scholarship, with $5,000 more awarded to runners-up.

A $1,000 award was presented in the name of Col. Kevin McAleese, who was credited with reviving the Miss Philadelphia Pageant in the mid-1990s after it had gone dormant for about 10 years. He died last month of cancer.

While organizers say the event focuses on service and scholarship, appearances are also taken into account. Every contestant - in addition to performing a talent and participating in interviews - must appear in an evening gown and swimsuit.

That aspect of pageantry has drawn criticism, but organizers argue the goal is to empower women.

"You can choose to allow someone to objectify you, or you can be confident in yourself," said Mary Kaye Anthony, 30, codirector of the Miss Philadelphia organization and the 2006 winner.

Anthony and codirector Kate Cohen said they stress the importance of being healthy, rather than thin.

"You're going to see Miss Philadelphias of all sizes," said Cohen, who is 34 and won the contest in 2000.

While "it's a terrifying thing" to wear a bathing suit onstage, Cohen said, "it's part of our tradition."

Before her audition in October - which drew more than 50 young women - Ruscio's only pageant experience had been watching the Miss America competition on TV.

She was encouraged to enter the Philadelphia pageant by Cohen, who had given her voice lessons as a child.

"It was a time for me to do something courageous," Ruscio said. She credits the competition with giving her new confidence: "I discovered a sense of self."

Ruscio transferred to Temple after playing Division I golf for a college in the South, where she hadn't felt at home, she said.

At Temple, she studies broadcast journalism and has been a weather forecaster for Temple Update, a student-run news show. She is also enrolled in online broadcast meteorology courses through Mississippi State University.

On Sunday, Ruscio made her first public appearance as Miss Philadelphia at the Philadelphia Flower Show.

Her service goal, she said, will be to start a local chapter of the Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome Foundation in hopes of raising awareness. According to the foundation, millions of women with PCOS are undiagnosed.

When Ruscio was diagnosed, an endocrinologist told her, "I'm sorry, this is something you're going to have to live with the rest of your life."

"Me, being my stubborn Italian self, said, 'This can't be,'" she said.

As she prepared for the pageant, she contacted the foundation's president and asked: "With or without a crown, what can I do?"


Contact Maddie Hanna at 856-779-3232 or mhanna@phillynews.com.

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