Miss Congeniality

UB student proves she is more than just a pageant girl


After being diagnosed with melanoma – the deadliest form of skin cancer – at 18 years old, Anastasia Harisis turned to what some may deem a nontraditional outlet to raise awareness.

Harisis, a Miss Syracuse 2014 Triple Crown Scholar runner-up, has been competing in pageants since she was in high school. She’s now cancer-free – she had a mole excised – but uses pageants as a platform to inform people about the dangers of melanoma.

She believes pageants are not simply about winning a trophy and wearing a sash – they’re about earning scholarships, participating in service and breaking stereotypes.

“I want the shiny crown, but that’s not why I do pageants,” Harisis said.

Harisis, a junior biology major, was focused on singing and medicine in high school and was never a typical pageant “girly girl,” she said. She didn’t consider joining the pageant world until high school when a woman stopped her on a beach and told her she could earn scholarships if she competed in pageants.

At the time, Harisis and her mother didn’t think much of the woman’s suggestion.

After watching Nina Davuluri win the crown at last year’s Miss America competition, Harisis changed her mind about pageants. She was inspired.

She admired Davuluri for her plan to go to medical school after her reign as Miss America.

“I saw this pageant on TV, wanted to do it and said, ‘Why not?’” Harisis said.

She applied for the Miss New York USA competition. She made it to state finals and then decided she wanted to do Miss America competitions because they were more “up her alley” in regards to scholarships and service.

In the Miss New York USA pageant Harisis competed against 170 girls. Although she did not place, she enjoyed the experience.

After singing for the talent portion of the competition, Harisis won highest overall talent at the Miss Syracuse pageant.

“I was really proud of myself because I was a little rusty,” she said.

Harisis’ sang “Defying Gravity” from the hit Broadway musical Wicked during the talent portion for Miss Syracuse. She said the exposure from that competition gave her the opportunity to sing the national anthem at marathons and other events in the Syracuse area.

She is currently preparing for the Miss Syracuse 2015 Triple Crown Competition.

Harisis has won a total of $500 from the pageants she has competed in. She often turns to her family and friends for support and to help cover the cost of competing.

Harisis said she tries to be as economically frugal as possible. She raised $2,000 from her friends and family to help cover the cost of swimsuits and gowns for the Miss USA pageant. She also has borrowed prom dresses from friends and other pageant girls for the talent portion of the competition.

Miss America touts itself as being the world’s largest scholarship provider for young women. They give out more then $40 million each year to competitors, according to the organization’s website.

“If you win Miss USA you get a modeling contract,” she said. “If you win Miss America, you are a spokesperson and an ambassador for important causes.”

The Miss America organization is a non-profit organization that supports women entering STEM fields (science, technology and math) among other causes and organizations. In order to compete in the pageant, each participant must raise $100 for the Children’s Miracle Network. Most of the money raised goes to the hospital, and the remainder funds scholarships.

In addition to supporting the Children’s Miracle Network, each competitor is required to have a platform. For her platform, Harisis chose to spread awareness on melanoma. She was diagnosed with stage I melanoma at age 18.

Pageant girls must be intelligent to succeed in the interview portion of the competition, according to Harisis. She said often times interviewers ask competitors about current events.

“Pageant girls aren’t dumb,” she said.

Although the emphasis on physical appearance during pageants has made Harisis more conscious about eating healthy and exercising, she doesn’t feel judged by the way she looks.

“We don’t just prance around in a bikini and get judged on our body,” she said.

Pageants do not promote anorexia, according to Harisis’ mother, Evgenia Harisis.

“You have to love the skin that you’re in and do your research to get far,” she said.

Harisis’ mother also said her daughter is self-sufficient and doesn’t need someone every second of the way to help her get ready. She said it’s never an anxious environment; they get Dunkin’ Donuts, listen to music and get excited.

Harisis had the opportunity to work with Amanda Mason, Miss New York 2013, after contacting her on Facebook. Mason has acted as a mentor to Harisis by giving her advice on competitions or helping pick out dresses to wear.

Mason has been competing in pageants since she was 14 years old and is now retired. She continues to work on her platform, the Middle School Movement, which is a drug prevention program educating children about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.

“Anastasia is very committed,” Mason said. “She’s so smart and talented. She is a huge, awesome package.”

Harisis plans on competing until she is 24 years old, the age limit for competing for Miss America.

“I would like to see Anastasia follow her dreams, whether that means being a doctor or continue doing pageants because it is a wonderful outlet for her voice to be heard,” Harisis’ mother said.

Harisis said competing in pageants makes her better rounded and keeps her focused. She looks forward to them because it’s something aside from school she can put time into, because school can get stressful.

After she completes her bachelor’s degree, Harisis plans on attending either medical school or completing a Ph.D. program within a biology discipline.

“Maybe I’ll be Miss America,” Harisis said. “You never know.”

email: features@ubspectrum.com