In the lead-up to Thanksgiving, Miss Maryland titleholder Hannah Brewer is gearing up for an active holiday season, with appearances at local parades, festivals and pageants taking up a huge chunk of her scheduled time. On top of her duties as Miss Maryland, though, the holiday season provides Brewer with another series of tasks, as the nonprofit she runs, Hannah's Heroes, increases production of holiday cards, gifts and care packages to be sent to military members overseas.

Last week, Brewer got together with members of her grandmother's homemaking club to cut, design and create dozens of original Christmas cards to be sent to members of the military who are going to have to remain away from home during the holiday season.


Hannah's Heroes

Brewer founded Hannah's Heroes in 2012, when she was only 15. The organization serves military members, families and veterans through charitable giving and donations of needed items. Brewer said the inspiration for the nonprofit came while volunteering with Operation Welcome Home, greeting soldiers at BWI. While meeting the service members, Brewer discovered that their connecting flight had been delayed until the next day. With hotels booked up, and the local USO closed for the evening, the soldiers had to sleep on wooden benches and airport floors.


"I saw something I didn't think was right," Brewer said. "You just assume our military is taken care of. I wanted to do something to make sure they were."

Brewer began knitting blankets to donate to the local USO to make them available to soldiers who have to spend the nights in airports. Soon she said she wanted to get more into monetary giving and began the efforts to establish Hannah's Heroes as a 501(c)(3) organization, reaching out to her family accountant to start the process.

Miss Maryland Hannah Brewer, of Manchester, was one of the top 15 finalists in the Miss America pageant, but finished out of the top five.

"With Hannah's Heroes, what I wanted to do was make it so I would never have to turn anyone away," Brewer said. "It all started with just one night in the airport. It's amazing how it transitioned into what it has become today."

Currently, the organization is working on sending holiday cards overseas. In addition, it sends out care packages and other requested items to various military bases across the globe. Locally, the organization holds events and parties for families and children of military members to help take their minds off of their family members serving abroad. Brewer said helping military members and veterans is one of the most rewarding kinds of service there is.

"We will always have military. We might not always be in the middle of a war, but there will always be people who are still willing and able to risk their lives for other people," Brewer said. "No matter what point we're at in our country, we'll always be able to still be active."

Over the four years, Brewer said she's greeted military members returning from their first deployments, only to see them deployed and returned again.

"I've used a lot of hand sanitizer in my day," Brewer said. "I've shaken hands of a lot of people in the military. You get to know them and how wonderful they are."

Entering the world of pageants

Brewer said her first glimpse at the world of pageants came in 2005, when her sister won Miss Pennsylvania at age 23. Only 8 years old, Brewer said she was instantly taken in by the glitz and glamour of the contest, as well as the idolization of her sister. The following year, Brewer enrolled in the Princess Program, a mentorship program for children ages 4 to 12. The princess participants are assigned one local contestant for the year, as the titleholders mentor and take their younger partners around to parades and other meet and greets.

Brewer first entered the Teen Miss America pageant at 13, the first year she was able, and competed for the title three times before jumping ship to the Miss Teen USA pageant system where she won the Miss Maryland Teen USA title for 2013. After her year of service as Miss Maryland Teen USA, Brewer said she took a few years off to focus on her modeling work and prepping for college, having graduated from high school at 16.

The third and final night of preliminary competition in the Miss America pageant is set for Thursday in Atlantic City.

The competition includes contesta

In order to prepare for her first pageant, Brewer said she had to get a coach to learn the ins and outs of the world.

"It's like any other sport you would do as a kid. You have to get a coach to figure out how to play the game," Brewer said. "She teaches you how to walk. The way you would normally walk down the street is not how you would walk on the stage."


In addition to the physicality of entering a pageant, the coach also trains you on how to approach the interview portion of the competition. She said it's vital to be able to look at questions from a number of perspectives and be educated yet diplomatic in your answers. Brewer said you have to be a careful study of current events to make it through the interview unscathed. During the Miss America pageant, Brewer said she had to field a question about a notoriously contentious subject: Donald Trump.

"One of the first questions they asked was 'What do you think of Donald Trump?' and that's such a loaded question because there are so many different things you could say," Brewer said. "I thought it's important to stay as positive as possible, so I said I thought his tan was really bad and he should find a better spray, because his eyes did not match his body, and he looked a little like a big orange blob walking around."

Brewer said when you're a titleholder you try to avoid situations in an interview where you would upset somebody or hurt somebody's feelings. She said it's vital to do your research before speaking your mind; in a competition, you can't just wing it, because you risk looking uninformed.

Miss Maryland

Each year between 20 and 30 women compete for the role of Miss Maryland, having first won a local pageant. Local pageants are split up throughout the state based on geography, but most are available to any residents of the state. Despite living in Hampstead, Brewer competed and won Miss Rocky Gap last year. She said in Maryland only Frederick and Washington counties have closed pageants. Frederick, because it gives out a local scholarship as a prize, and Washington County because of the number of local entrants who have interest in the pageant.

As Miss Maryland, Brewer said she makes from two to seven appearances a week, including parades, military welcomes and local pageants. She said some of the appearances are paid, in order to help the pageant winners since their time is so monopolized by the title. She said she emcees each of the local pageants, singing the anthem and helping to crown the girls. She said it's important to have these local contestants, because for many young girls, it is the closest they'll ever get to Miss America.

"There are so few people who get to meet Miss Maryland, and even less who get to meet Miss America," Brewer said. "If you're a little girl the local titleholder is your entry into this whole world. To me, local is just as important as the national or state. It's all about showing what the organization is all about."

Miss America pageant


As the winner of Miss Maryland, Brewer moved on to participate in the annual Miss America pageant in Atlantic City. She said the two-week process begins with preliminary competitions in which all 50 contestants compete in all of the events that are eventually televised to narrow the field to the final 15. Brewer ended up winning the preliminary swimsuit competition, a distinction she said matters less for the final result than you'd think.


"If you win a preliminary award, there becomes this idea that you're a winner or are more likely to win, but that's not always entirely true," Brewer said. "Plenty of girls have never won a preliminary award then went on to win Miss America, and there are others who win everything but still don't make it to the top."

Cheyanne Stonesifer, 20, has spent her life working harder and reaching higher. And now she has seen a dream of hers come true. Stonesifer will be competing in the Miss Maryland USA pageant in the fall and is most likely the first little person to ever compete in the pageant. The event will take place Nov. 4-6 in North Bethesda.

During the on-stage competition, Brewer said she wasn't able to see her family at all. She said the girls are sequestered for their safety, and once on stage, everything is so large and active that you don't have a chance to see anyone.

"I got to see pictures of them all there, at least," Brewer said. "When you're on national television you can look out into the sea of people and think, 'At least I have a couple people in the audience who love me, even if everyone else doesn't like me.'"

Brewer made it to the final seven, and was one of the last three on stage when Miss America was crowned. The entire time, she said she knew that current Miss America, Savvy Shields, was going to take home the crown.

"When I watched it later, I saw how obvious it was that I knew it was going to be her, because I couldn't stop looking at her the whole time," Brewer said. "It's like the tragic superpower. When you spend a lot of time with the girls, because you are there for two weeks together, you get to know them and get a sense of who is going to win."

Negative stigma

Brewer said it can be tough to explain the role of Miss Maryland to people because there can be a negative stigma against pageants and contestants.

"When you think of a pageant girl, you think of the girl from South Carolina who's talking about the maps," Brewer said. "And it's a shame, because like everything else in life, sometimes when we have a negative idea of something, that's what we associate it with, instead of realizing there's so much more to it."

Another challenge is that many people don't realize that the Miss America and Miss USA pageants are different organizations with different missions and goals. According to Brewer, Miss USA does not compete with a talent, and scholarships are a less important part of the prize packages. While Miss USA is a for-profit company, Miss America is still primarily volunteer run, with employees working only in the organization's scholarship offices.

Despite her win in the preliminary category at Miss America, Brewer said she sometimes wishes the swimsuit competition could be eliminated from the pageant as a whole. Though the pageant got its start as a bathing beauty contest in 1921 in order to extend the summer season in Atlantic City, Brewer said it has grown into an event that truly embodies the ideas of service and scholarship.

"Anyone can walk on stage in a swimsuit or a fancy dress and sing a song or do a talent," Brewer said. "What makes these girls so neat is they want to go out and serve their community, and I think if that were part of the competition people would view it very differently, because you would see her heart and not just her body."

Brewer said the swimsuit competition has no relationship to the duties you have as a titleholder, because it's something you're never asked to replicate outside of the stage. She said in years to come, the pageant might change, but probably not in the near future. She said there is still some hope, though.

"Maybe one day when I get a little older, I'll get my hands on the organization," Brewer said. "Maybe then they'll change it."

Looking to the future

Through her work as Miss Maryland, Brewer said she met a number of contacts that led to a host of job opportunities. She said she's going to work with an investment broker for Wells Fargo in Owings Mills, while continuing side work as a model.

In the pageant world, she's volunteered to be Miss Maryland's first official stylist. She said one of the misconceptions people have coming in is that they have to be glittery all of the time.

"You have to look professional, because you're meeting with businesses and with organizations all of the time," Brewer said. "I love fashion and I love helping the girls. I want to help Miss Maryland prepare for Miss America. I hope that job will turn into something more."



Miss America pageant secrets

•During the two weeks of the Miss America pageant, each titleholder has to turn in her cellphone, which is placed in a bin labeled for each state, to ensure no contact with the outside world.

•There's a room called Sleepy Hollow that serves as a nap room for contestants. There's a cot and a blanket, and someone sits outside the door to guard the room and wake contestants when it's their turn to go on.

•The four points of the crown stand for service, success, scholarship and style, and the crown stays on through a series of built-in hair clasps.

•The contestants use a product called Topstick, meant for hairpieces, to keep their sashes on their shoulders throughout the competition.

•To prevent faceplanting on the Atlantic City boardwalk, the contestants use small caps called heel protectors to prevent their heels from sliding between the boards.

•During the interviews, each contestant faces a panel that bombards her with questions. In a private room, the CEO watches live television footage of the interviews.

•The preliminary competition determines the top 15 who will compete on stage. The judges who do the preliminary competition create a combined score of 1 to 10 that weighs into the final placement. A contestant who does well in the preliminary can earn a spot in the top seven even while bombing the on-air categories.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun