It’s not unusual for sisters to share interests, especially as they get older. That’s certainly the case for A’Leah and Taylor Burrell of Tyrone. Not only do they share a passion for singing and community involvement, both sisters have been active in the Miss America organization since they were pre-teens. In fact, A’Leah, 20, is the current Miss North Georgia, and Taylor, 18, is the current Miss Apple Capital. That means that, later this month, they’ll also be sharing a stage as both compete for the title of Miss Georgia. It’s the first time in more than a decade that sisters have vied for the state title – and the chance to go on to the national competition. Far from being a version of sibling rivalry, however, the sisters see the upcoming pageant as a joint adventure.
“Obviously, only one woman will win the title,” says A’Leah, “but we don’t like to think of it as competing against each other so much as competing with each other. We both spend a lot of time preparing, and it’s so much fun to be able to practice together and bounce ideas off each other. It really adds something special and makes things even more exciting.”
For the Burrell sisters, Miss America is truly a family affair – literally and figuratively. Once upon a time, their mother was Miss Teen Peninsula and she served as a local executive director for five years in Virginia. A’Leah entered her first pageant in 2007 at age 11, and took home the Miss Virginia Outstanding Pre-Teen award. Taylor began a year later, at age 10, and won Miss Virginia Pre-Teen in 2009. Two years ago, the sisters moved to Georgia with their family and they say continuing to compete within the organization that had become extended family helped them through a tough move.
“Miss America gave us something familiar when everything was changing,” says Taylor. “We have made so many friends through the years and being able to talk with them, even see some of them at pageants, it gave us a sense that our lives weren’t completely different.”
Those friendships, both agree, are one of the best aspects of the Miss America program.
“There are a lot of misconceptions and stereotypes about ‘beauty queens’ and pageants,” says Taylor. “I actually wrote a paper about that in high school. Miss America is not just about looking nice and having a great walk, and while you do run into some negativity with contestants occasionally, it’s really very rare. Most of us are there to learn and grow, to be our own personal best and to support each other.”
“Miss America so much more than the crown,” A’Leah adds. “Honestly, only three days are about you: the day you win your local, the day you win your state, and the day you’re crowned Miss America. The other 362 days are about helping other people and organizations. In fact, one of the great joys of pageants is the opportunity to form and promote your platform.”
A’Leah’s platform is one she developed on her own. Named “Shhh…It’s a Secret,” the organization is devoted to providing support for and education about young adult bedwetting. Taylor’s platform is animal cruelty prevention.
“People sometimes point out that you don’t have to be a titleholder to volunteer,” says Taylor. “That’s true, of course. But having that title does catch people’s attention and give you visibility, and that gives us an extra opportunity to affect change.”
In today’s Miss America, the majority of a contestant’s points come from the interview and talent segments. Since both sisters love to sing, it’s unsurprising that both have chosen it as their talent. Taylor leans toward power ballads and cites Whitney Houston, Adele, and Celine Dion as some of her favorites. A’Leah says she’s more performer than straight singer and loves to tackle Broadway hits. Both women also dance, and have taken lessons in ballet and lyrical contemporary, though both say they love tap best.
“We actually love to tap together,” says A’Leah. “It sounds funny to say, but our feet sort of get each other.”
The sisters also say the scholarship dollars they’ve earned through Miss America have been a blessing for them and for their family. A’Leah is majoring in elementary education with plans to teach and eventually open her own charter school. Animal-lover Taylor plans to become a veterinarian and has a special interest in turtles, which she began rescuing and rehabbing at age nine.
“When you start, when you’re young, you’re thinking about the crown and the sash,” Taylor says. “But I think there’s a moment for everyone when you realize what this pageant is really about. At that point, everything changes, and you start thinking about the big picture. You realize that Miss America isn’t a supermodel, she’s a public servant, from the local level on through. We believe we can make the world better and this is part of how we do it.”
“I think one of the often-overlooked aspects of Miss America is the ability to redefine ‘beautiful,’” A’Leah adds. “I’m not a tiny woman. I’m a size twelve. But I have an opportunity to shine on that state stage. Miss America enables every contestant to be her best. It’s a great opportunity to show people – to show young girls – that beauty isn’t defined by your dress size. There are as many kinds of beautiful as there are people. What’s important is to find yours and embrace it.”