Crystal Lee ’13 M.A. ’13, Miss California 2013 and First Runner-Up to Miss America 2014, returned to her junior year home in EAST House last Thursday to discuss her life in the world of pageants and what role these beauty events play in conversations of sexism and feminism.
Lee opened up the conversation by talking about how she first started competing in pageants at the age of 15 to finance her college education.
“When I was in high school, I started thinking about college, and I didn’t really realize how expensive college was,” Lee said. “I looked at the number for the very first time, and I looked at how much I would earn at a part-time job working at Taco Bell, and I did the actual math.”
While at Stanford, she had to juggle multiple activities while continuing to pursue her pageant career as Miss Chinatown USA 2010. She graduated with a B.A. in human biology and an M.A. in communication after only 11 quarters at Stanford.
“You learn time management from day one…because at the end of the day, if you want to do it, you’ll make time for it,” Lee said. “It’s something that I think all Stanford students are really good at.”
Talking about the Miss America organization, Lee acknowledged that while it is “notoriously conservative,” she also believes that the next frontier of pageants will include both transgender and openly gay contestants.
“We have not had an openly gay Miss America yet. Yet. But…I think it will happen in the next 30 or 40 years,” Lee said. “And the reason why I say that is because there have been lesbian contestants in the past. I think it will change inevitably.”
Despite her success at many pageant contests, Lee admitted that she sometimes had to “play the game” even if it meant compromising personal choices.
In particular, she described how she came up short in her first appearance in the Miss California pageant, where she wondered if her decision to perform a Chinese dance her first year had affected her chances of winning.
“A lot of the volunteers and the audience members came up to me afterwards, and they said, ‘Oh you would have won, but you did a Chinese dance. No one gets that. They don’t get it,’” Lee said. “ And I hate to say it, but I changed it to ballet [for the second year], and I won.”
Being a pageant participant provided Lee with an unconventional perspective on feminism.
Lee said that while some people believe that women have to act more like men to succeed in the professional world, she learned there is nothing wrong with women using their own power to obtain their goals, even if it is in a pageant setting.
She added that the social impact of pageants themselves call into question issues of gender and feminine beauty.
“Essentially, pageants have changed a lot, and it’s arguable as to whether pageants have led the way in the way people think or whether pageants are just a reflection of society and a reflection of the changing ideals of beauty,” Lee said.
Thanh Nguyen ’14, who met Lee when he was a freshman and was a primary coordinator for the event, said that he was pleased with the audience’s high level of engagement and willingness to ask difficult questions. He also applauded Lee’s thoughtful and candid responses.
“She represents the [Miss America] organization so she’s certainly limited in what she can say,” Nguyen said. “After talking with some students, they felt a little bit uncomfortable by some of her answers, which is fine because it’s a tricky topic.”
Through her platform as Miss California, Lee aims to empower women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). She herself has interned at Dropbox and has been involved with Nanoly, a startup working towards eliminating the difficulties of vaccine transportation.
“The issue I care about is getting more women in STEM fields,” Lee said. “So anything related to Stanford and coming back here is always something that I really enjoy and something that the organization will let me do.”
After her reign as Miss California, she wants to start her own company and continue in the STEM fields.
“I already have a few interesting opportunities coming up, and I’m already starting to lay the groundwork because, you know, Rome wasn’t built in a day,” Lee said. “So I’m already thinking about next July.”
Contact Kylie Jue at kyliej ‘at’ stanford.edu.