Most beauty pageant contestants begin competing as early as age 5, but 22-year-old Erin O’Connor has competed in only three pageants in her life — and won two. In March 2009, she entered the Miss Macomb pageant as a way to spread awareness of skin cancer prevention in honor of her mother who succumbed to melanoma. Three months later she won the Miss Illinois crown, qualifying her for the 2010 Miss America competition in which she failed to place in the top 15.
In addition to her Miss Illinois win, her “Take Care: Skin Cancer Education and Prevention” platform earned her a community service award from the Miss Illinois Scholarship Association.
After her Miss Illinois reign ends, O’Connor hopes to complete her degree in theater and dance from Western Illinois University and then pursue a master’s in fine arts.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about beauty pageants,” she told the Southtown Star. It’s not just a beauty competition. It’s about spreading the spirit of volunteerism and making yourself a better person. I have a quote from Shakespeare: ‘To thine own self be true.’ It might sound so cliché, but I live by it.”
CHARACTER COUNTS!: As Miss Illinois, your primary function is to promote character education. Can you share some examples with us?
Erin O’Connor: The best leaders lead by example and can admit when they make mistakes. In the speech I give about character, I tell stories about how I haven’t always lived up to the Six Pillars of Character.
One story that kids seem to enjoy is when I stayed out two hours past my curfew. During high school, I thought my early curfew was unfair, so I always pushed the limits. I was constantly coming home a few minutes late, which showed my mom I couldn’t be trusted with a later curfew. One night I decided to stay out past midnight, and when I finally returned home my mom was sitting on the front porch waiting for me! That night I chose not to act with character, and as a result I was grounded for a very long time! I am grateful my mom was tough on me, because I learned a serious lesson about responsibility. If I had behaved responsibly, I probably could have negotiated a later curfew, but in ignoring the rules my parents laid out, I showed them I was not ready to be given more freedom. I often think about that night when I am faced with a difficult decision, and I try to do what I think my mom would want me to do.
CC!: What’s the most important aspect of good character and why?
O’Connor: Accountability. No one can force us to have good character. We need to take stock of ourselves and our values daily to make sure we’re truly living a life of character.
CC!: What are you doing on behalf of character education during your reign as Miss Illinois?
O’Connor: During my year of service, I’ll travel to nearly 100 schools and speak to 30,000 children on the importance of character. I hope that in sharing personal stories about how I sometimes don’t always live up to the Six Pillars, kids can laugh a little and learn from my mistakes. I adapt my presentation to suit different ages. Every school I have visited teaches me something new about myself. I hope that after I appear at a child’s school, the next time they are faced with a difficult decision they think back to the Six Pillars and choose to act with character.
CC!: Some of the schools you’ve visited have been CC! schools. What’s been your impression of the school climate there and of the CC! program?
O’Connor: Some schools are hearing about CHARACTER COUNTS! for the first time. Those that have been using CC! are extremely receptive to my message. They already know the Six Pillars and can engage in a dialogue that explores what it really means to act with character.
CC!: While visiting schools, did you witness any innovative examples of living a life of character?
O’Connor: Around Christmas, many schools had clothing or toy drives. At one junior high school, the students had collected hundreds and hundreds of shoes for the underprivileged. It was extraordinary to see what they’d accomplished! What a fantastic example of caring.
CC!: You were given an award for community service. How did that come about?
O’Connor: In June I received the Community Service Award during the Miss Illinois pageant for my work with my Skin Cancer Education and Prevention platform. I lost my mom to skin cancer in 2007 and have volunteered with the American Cancer Society and the Melanoma Research Foundation ever since.
When I talk to children about the Pillar of citizenship, I encourage them to follow in my footsteps. Choose a cause that’s important to you and spend a little time each week volunteering to help. You never know what it might lead to.
CC!: How are each of the Six Pillars of Character reflected in your life?
O’Connor: Being Miss Illinois puts one in a position to be a role model for thousands of people. I try to live up to my title every day by taking stock and asking myself, “Am I being trustworthy? Caring? Fair?”
CC!: What character qualities do you hope to take with you into your personal and professional life after your reign?
O’Connor: My year as Miss Illinois has taught me so much about what it means to be a good citizen and a caring sister, daughter, and friend. I’ve learned about being fair and respectful when I meet people from all walks about life.
Being a spokesperson for CHARACTER COUNTS! has transformed the way I engage in the world around me. It’s my sincere wish that I can be a character role model — not only during my service as Miss Illinois but for the rest of my life.