Strong women. Strong America.
That's the slogan of The Miss MAGA Pageant, which began accepting applications this week ahead of a January event in New Orleans.
A Youngsville couple were inspired to start the pageant after the woman named Miss Michigan 2019 was stripped of her tiara in July because of controversial social media posts.
"After that happened, we said we want to stand up for what we believe in and give others a voice," John Carlson said. "That's really what inspired the whole thing."
The Carlsons reached out to Kathy Zhu, the former Miss Michigan 2019, who said she would love to serve as a judge and crown Miss MAGA during the pageant.
"I think me being a judge will show support for being inclusive of all opinions instead of just one," Zhu said in a phone interview with The Acadiana Advocate. "The Miss MAGA Pageant isn't just a Trump-supporter pageant. The MAGA slogan isn't just about one side. It's about doing whatever it takes to make America great again."
Zhu's commitment turned the concept — which was initially just a joke among friends — into a reality.
The Carlsons developed contest guidelines and began raising money for the pageant, which is named for the Make America Great Again slogan popularized by President Donald Trump during his 2016 campaign.
Neither one has experience with pageants, but Jessica Carlson has worked as a model.
"I used to be kind of critical of pageants, but I didn't really know much about them," she said. "Actually putting on a pageant has helped me see the appeal of them. I used to think it's all about the beauty and the looks, but looking into it more, a lot of past beauty queens talk about how much work you have to put into being confident with yourself on stage, which I've learned from modeling too."
Applicants must meet certain criteria to be considered for one of the 25 contestant spots in the pageant.
A contestant must be a legal citizen of the United States between the ages of 18 and 35. She can be single or married, and she can have children. She must be a "natural born female" who is not transgender.
Contestants do not have to be Republican or have conservative views.
"It's all about free speech," John Carlson said. "We're not restricting it to just conservatives. We want everybody to be involved, regardless of political party, sexual orientation, race. We really want anyone who is proud of America and has strong American values to be involved."
The Carlsons said the goal of the pageant is to demonstrate to conservative women across America that it's OK to voice their opinions and to show others that conservatives aren't "made up of a bunch of old, white, racist men."
They hope to showcase the diversity among conservatives through the pageant's judges.
Zhu, who is Chinese-American, will be joined by Rob Smith, a military veteran who is black and gay; Katie Williams, whose Miss Nevada 2019 title was stripped in August, also because of social media posts; and Erin Elmore, who appeared on NBC's "The Apprentice 3" with Trump. All of the judges are known for having conservative values.
The ideal Miss MAGA would be "open-minded and open to new opinions" yet "firm on ideals and very outspoken," Zhu said. "They would have depth to them — not just all word and talk — and they would actually do things and help with causes and things and just be a well-rounded individual."
Judges will score contestants based on four categories during the pageant — interview, swimsuit, debate and formal wear. The Carlsons said they wanted to include the swimsuit category specifically because Miss America scrapped that portion from its pageant last year.
"We wanted to have it to support body positivity," John Carlson said. "You should be confident no matter how you look. It's not going to be a bikini contest. We're going to let them wear any kind of swimsuit they want. It's really to show confidence, intelligence, maturity."
The Carlsons are hoping to raise $75,000 to $100,000 ahead of The Miss MAGA Pageant, which is set to happen in mid or late January at the Saenger Theatre or a similar venue in New Orleans. They've set up an online fundraiser at gofundme.com/f/miss-maga-pageant.
Money would go primarily toward booking the venue and travel arrangements for judges. Any additional funds received would be donated to charities that support "what make America great," such as environmental, social and economic organizations.
The woman crowned Miss MAGA will be required to make special appearances scheduled by the pageant for a year after receiving the award. The Carlsons hope to make the pageant an annual event.
Even though they were inspired to start the pageant in support of free speech after Zhu was stripped of her title, they said Miss MAGA could have her crown taken away if circumstances justified it.
"If they're out there saying 'Liberals are all horrible' and that kind of stuff, then we don't want them to represent the pageant," Jessica Carlson said.
"It's debatable," John Carlson said. "We wouldn't just up and take the crown away from someone just because we disagree with what they say. We don't want to do the same thing that they did... We probably wouldn't take the crown away unless they were threatening other people, inciting violence, something like that."
Learn more about The Miss MAGA Pageant at missmagapageant.com.