Miss California, Grass Valley’s own Jillian Smith, competes for Miss America
Weeks after being crowned Miss California, and weeks before heading to Atlantic City for her next stage of competition, Jillian Smith stepped away from glitz and glamour of the pageant scene for a return home to her roots.
She was welcomed by the hugs of family and friends at a welcome-home party celebration, and later embraced again by the wider community during a stop at the Nevada County Fair.
“I’m super, super grateful to come from the small town of Grass Valley,” Smith said after being named Miss California. “I hope to make Grass Valley really proud this year.”
What was once her childhood dream has now become a reality, as she makes final preparations for this weekend’s Miss America pageant.
Smith grew up in Grass Valley, after her family moved here from Riverside shortly after she was born.
She graduated from Nevada Union High School in 2013 and is currently in college at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. Studying first as a music major, she switched to broadcast journalism in her second year.
Initially, Smith thought she wanted to be a newscaster, but after learning the ropes she found she was drawn more to “feel-good” stories.
“I got known as the fluff-piece girl because of all the stories I pitched were the fun stories and the stories that made you feel good,” she said.
Recognizing that, she decided she wanted to pursue entertainment news with hopes of making people feel good as a career.
“In a perfect world, I would take Steve Harvey’s job on ‘Little Big Shots,'” she said. “I see myself doing entertainment media. To combine my love of media and my love of working with children would be my dream job.”
Smith comes from a long line of pageant competitors, as she is one of seven grandchildren in her family who have competed for the Miss America organization.
Her first memory of the Miss America pageant was watching Rita Ng, who won Miss California in 2000, play piano.
Watching Ng was the spark that lit Smith’s interest in playing the piano, as well as dreams of following in her footsteps.
Smith was crowned Miss California on July 1, on the very same stage she watched Ng crowned.
“I was shocked when they named me Miss California,” said Smith. “To this day it’s still a blackout blur.”
A homecoming/send-off party was held for Smith on Aug. 12, during the Nevada County Fair. The party was a great way to show appreciation for her hometown and a last chance to see friends and family before the Miss America competition.
Smith said she was thrilled to host the party here, because if she wins the title of Miss America she won’t be able to be home for a year.
“I think coming from a small town actually really helped me prepare to be Miss California,” said Smith. “I have a pretty unique perspective on California than what most people think of. Most people think Hollywood and L.A., but there is much more to it than that.”
The Miss America organization has helped thousands of girls through its scholarship programs.
“The organization gets a bad rap,” said Smith. “It’s not just a beauty pageant; it’s a scholarship organization.”
Smith said she has been able to pay for the majority of her education through the Miss America scholarship program.
“You don’t have to win to earn scholarship money either,” she said. “I have lost more times than I have won and I have paid for most of my college through the program.”
As for the competition, she said most people have a misconception on what it’s all about.
“It’s not about the title or how good you look in a swimsuit,” said Smith. “It’s about being a well-rounded person.”
Judges, she said, are looking for women who keep up with current affairs and stand by their opinions. They are scored on how they handle themselves when asked difficult questions.
“If the president can’t figure out how to solve world hunger, how would 22-year-old college student?” said Smith. “We know they will ask difficult questions and it’s okay to not know the answer. It’s about having an opinion and standing by it.”
The different stages of competition are a private judge interview, swimsuit, evening gown, talent and on-stage questions. Each competitor also has a platform on which they run for the length of their tour as Miss America. Smith’s platform is the “DUDE. Be Nice Project.”
Kindness, gratitude and inclusivity are the three pillars of what the organization stands for. The project is not anti-bullying or anti anything, she said. It’s all about promoting positivity.
The Miss America competition starts with the preliminary competition Sept. 6-8. The final night, when a winner will be crowned, is Sunday. TV coverage starts at 9 p.m. on ABC.
Smith said hasn’t looked at this opportunity as preparing to win the title of Miss America. She is preparing for life, she said, to be the best version of herself. But, she said, the thought has crossed her mind.
“It would be insane; there is no way to prepare for that moment,” she said. “Words won’t do it justice.”