Motley’s Deputy Fashion Editor Kaia Purcell tells us about how doing an ‘unfeminist’ thing: entering the 2020 Miss Cork Beauty Pageant – was a means of cultivating her leadership skills and helped her develop her feminist voice.  


When I began my journey in university, I still wasn’t all that sure of myself and my choices.  I definitely did not know what job I wanted to pursue. The truth of the matter is that I still don’t know. However, one thing I am sure of is that revisiting my childhood ambitions has helped me to gainl insight into the kind of woman that I would like to be.


Thinking in this way led to the fact that last year, in addition to my studies, part time job and other commitments, I made the decision to enter into the Miss Cork competition in 2020. The Miss Cork competition is the beginning of the process which leads to the Miss Ireland completion, and ultimately to Miss World. Being involved with something like this is something that I had always wanted to do from a very young age. The world of pageants fascinated me and the aspiration to one day become just like those powerful and inspiring women that I saw entering these competitions compelled me. 

One of the terrible byproducts of growing up is that life can knock the aspirations out of you. Once the external world has told you a few times that your ambitions are not worthy – you internalise it. All too soon, the world doesn’t need to tell you that your dreams are pointless, you do it for yourself.  If feelings such as fear and self-esteem begin to take over, the probability of your fears getting the better of you increases. The spectre of adulthood overshadowed this little sparkle of ambition – but only momentarily. I decided to bite the bullet, go with my ambition and fill out the Miss Cork application. Luckily for me I was accepted. Once I had crossed the self-built boundary that was keeping me back, I knew I had made the right decision to embark on this journey.


Unfortunately the selection process of the competition was affected by the lockdown restrictions that all we know too well.  However, this did not stop me from engaging in and reaping the benefits of the process. Having to put yourself forward to be part of something like this brought an immediate boost of confidence for me and one which allowed me to give my energy not only to the competition but also to many other parts of my life. Firstly, I had to arrange a sponsor, which I did with ease. The Lough Credit Union is an organisation that I am involved with in a voluntary capacity and the support that I have received from them throughout this process has been invaluable. Following on from this came the task of trying to organise other things for the final, including heading to the Moderne Bridal Wear to search for the perfect dress (with my Pinterest board full of ideas in tow) and emerging with a stunning red gown for the evening wear portion of the competition. 


The socially distanced finals of Miss Cork meant that I had to attend alone and drive myself home with my friends and family watching at home via a live stream. This wasn’t what I had hoped for of course, but the experience was still exhilarating with the excitement buzzing around between all of the girls, and I knew that my family and friends were sending their love from home.  All of the finalists and judges gathered at Keary’s Mini Cooper Showroom in Little Island where we had lots of space for a make-shift runway.  There were three runway walks that made up the competition: one wearing sports wear, one in clothing that reflected our personal style and of course the evening wear round.  After deliberation, I was completely elated to hear that I had placed as second runner-up, meaning I had secured a place in the next step of the competition – the Miss Ireland semi-finals. Driving down the dual carriageway with my sash, evening gown and runners with my heels and bunch of flowers taking occupancy in my passenger seat felt surreal (huge apology to any poor people who were stuck next to me at a red light while I sobbed with happiness). That moment alone really allowed me to reflect and to praise myself for choosing this journey, applying myself and succeeding. I must admit without trying to sound too cliché, it truly was a time of a completely untainted feeling of self-love and appreciation to know that I had achieved a lifelong aspiration. 


The relevance of beauty pageants in the twenty-first century is often the subject of debate. This is of course something that I was aware of beforehand. Here are my thoughts: many people who may not be too familiar with the workings of competitions like Miss Ireland may not understand or appreciate the hard work and determination given by each contestant to secure the coveted crown. The process goes so much beyond the superficial aspects like beauty and appearance. Contestants must voice a higher purpose to their application and a vocation to help others on their journey. The judging process spans over an array of categories. Huge importance is placed on the Beauty With A Purpose element of the competition, where contestants are required to raise awareness, support and funds for a charitable organisation that they feel passionately about. The competition utilises its platform to support and encourage all contestants in various charitable endeavours, and the contestants all work together as advocates to promote and support a wide range of causes. 


Personally, there are very many charities which I feel passionately about and strive towards helping throughout my life and not just in this competition, and the deterrents that we face in today’s strange world should force us to adapt and continue to support them. For example, I applaud the work done by Dress For Success Cork, a non-profit organisation that works to support women in the employment force. Unfortunately, I could not support them in traditional ways (such as in-person fundraisers) due to restrictions this year, however I decided to utilise the resources that I do have and feature an article about the work they did in earlier in the year in Motley in order to raise awareness and encourage support. Similarly, I supported a close friend to raise money for the Sexual Violence Centre in Cork by following in her (literal) footsteps and undergoing a sponsored 100km walk to raise vital funds. We all have the ability to support one another, despite all of the present challenges – it is simply a matter of being productive and proactive in a clever and resourceful way. 


Deciding to take part in a pageant in today’s world means an awful lot to me – I feel a responsibility to defend my dreams by outlining the positive aspects of my participation and to defend the place of these competitions in the world today. However, my personal opinion is that in a world striving for freedom and individuality, I am fortunate to be provided with the space and support from others to allow me to pursue my own personal dreams. I strive to use this medium to promote my ideas – my ideas of happiness, positivity, support and productivity and to encourage others to follow their path whatever it may be.  Above all, to protect our childhood aspirations and desires as best as we can, to nurture them and to allow them to flourish to their fullest ability. Diversity is the amazing part of life that allows us to live in a world sounding loudly of differing voices that create a symphony of gorgeous harmony. The most valuable lesson that we can learn from each other is to encourage one another, to support our peers in their endeavours and to always cheer for others in their work. Regardless of our personal views, it is so vital that we all strive towards a world where those childlike abilities of dreaming are nurtured and that we can all follow our wildest dreams. I am so excited for this journey that I am on and I am really fortunate to be involved in a positive community like this one; one  in which women support each other in an environment that encourages empowerment, positivity and hard work not only among the contestants but also to promote those ideas to many others.

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