Miss California 2023: not your grandmother’s beauty pageant

Miss Berkeley Sabrina Lewis won the title of Miss California at the Miss California 2023 pageant. Catherine Doe/Valley Voice

The Visalia Convention Center hosted the Miss California competition this past weekend, a pageant that challenges the traditional view of beauty with a incredibly diverse group of contestants.

On July 1, the pageant assembled 44 contestants representing all body types, ethnicities and abilities. When the top 12 finalists were announced, Miss San Francisco Monroe Lace — a transgender woman — was among them.

Lace was the first transgender woman to compete in Miss California’s 99-year history and reached the semifinals after winning the People’s Choice Award held through the Miss California website. Voting was held all week and up to the day of the pageant.

But it was Sabrina Lewis, Miss Berkeley, who was crowned Miss California on Saturday night after a three hour show of talent, evening gowns, and interviews.

This wasn’t the first crown for Lewis: she previously held the title of Miss California USA, which is part of the Miss USA Organization previously owned by Donald Trump.

The Miss America pageant, which Miss California is part of, is a franchise that emphasizes scholarship and talent versus glamour and the swimsuit competition of the Miss USA pageant.

Considered a scholarship competition, the Miss California organization awards a total of $72,000 in scholarship money. Miss America awards $120,000 to the women who reach the top five and tens of thousands to the remaining contestants.

Elizabeth Sartuche, Miss Tulare County, said during her live interview, “I, like a lot of my sisters across the country, am able to pursue a higher education right now only because of the financial impact that the Miss California has had on my life. I want to be a representative of Miss California, to show there is no orthodox timeline for school—and that this scholarship organization can change lives.”

The winner of Miss California will compete in the Miss America pageant in January.


Winner performs HERStory

Many of the 12 finalists, including Lewis, chose to deliver spoken-word monologues that included a slideshow presentation called HERStory instead of performing a traditional talent.  During Lewis’ monologue she told the audience of her lifelong love of horses and how her choice to be an equestrian challenged the stereotypical expectation that Black women pursue basketball or track.

According to the San Franciscan Standard, “’I’ll always be a horse girl,’ the Olympian hopeful said in the talent portion of the competition, describing how she often struggled to find a home in that rarefied world as a young Black girl. Lewis now runs an equestrian-related nonprofit and recently completed a master’s degree in public administration.”

Lewis said during the competition that her ultimate goal is to make the 2028 US Olympic Equestrian team being held in Los Angeles and that in the long-term she wants to return to her alma mater as a professor.

Competition for the crown started Monday, June 26 and continued through the week with interviews and preliminary competitions. On the final night of the competition the judges picked 12 finalist after a burlesque-style dance number was performed by all the contestants.

Only the finalists competed in the talent/HERStory, evening gown, interview, and Health and Fitness categories. The swimsuit category was eliminated in 2019.

Among the finalists was Tulare Union High School alum Elizabeth Sartuche, Miss Tulare County. A senior at Fresno State majoring in communications, Sartuche put on an impressive flute performance for her talent portion of the competition.

Sartuche’s platform was sustainability. Known as the “Queen of Thrifting” she advises people to save money and the earth by shopping at second hand stores. Although Sartuche has held five titles in the Miss America Organization she hasn’t spent more than $11 on gowns for the competitions, buying them mostly second hand.

She says fashion is the second-highest polluting industry in the world, so Sartuche advocates for ‘sustainable shopping’ to cut down on the environmental impact of clothing.

“Every garment that you buy second-hand is one less garment that’s going to go to our landfills. And the second reason that you should thrift is that you’re supporting local businesses, local people and local charities,” Sartuche said during an interview on ABC News.


Visalia receives her crown, too

Fresno has hosted the Miss California Competition for the last 26 years, and depending on who you talk to, different reasons are given as to why they lost it to Visalia.

One organizer said it was money and accommodations. Another person who helped coordinate the week’s events said it was safety, and yet another said, “the girls have so much more to do in Visalia than Fresno.”

According to several sources, the Miss California Organization intends to sign a five year contract with Visalia. That means the 100th anniversary of the pageant will take place in Visalia. The dates are already set: June 11 – 13, 2024.

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