Mo Shea had imagined every detail of her last night as Miss Montana. She would wear the silky blue dress with the long train, pinning her hair in curls before the competition. As she took her final walk across the stage, she’d find her family in the crowd. This year’s contestants — “the sisterhood” — would clap and cheer. And then it would be over: After eight years of competing in the Miss Montana and Miss Teen competitions, winning over $17,000 in scholarships, Shea would place the crown on the head of the next winner and wave goodbye.
Every Miss Montana looks forward to that final night, Shea said. It’s an opportunity to celebrate all the hard work you put in the year before, traveling around the state as the official face of the Miss Montana Scholarship Program, championing the causes you care about. Shea — who has a degree in cellular and molecular neuroscience and is bound for medical school — used the platform to spread awareness about skin cancer.
“When you give up the title, that’s the last hurrah,” Shea said. “Everyone is congratulating you, taking pictures, asking about your journey. It’s your moment.”
Earlier this month, Shea announced that she will not be attending the Miss Montana contest this year.
“In light of the current public health crisis in our state and around the country,” she posted on Instagram, “I feel I would be putting my own health and the health of those in my life at risk by attending.”
The Miss America foundation canceled its national contest in May, encouraging states to follow their lead. Montana is the only state in the country that has not canceled its competition, which was delayed but is now scheduled to begin on July 23. The contest regularly draws 500 spectators from all over the state, Shea said. While the state organization has promised to maintain social distancing, roping off certain rows in the auditorium, they do not plan to require competitors or attendees to wear masks.
“There’s so much controversial data on masks that I personally would not require a person to wear a mask. There’s a lot of data that those masks are not safe, and there’s too much controversial data on that to me to require someone to do that,” Jan Holden, executive director of Miss Montana, told the Independent Record. (There is no substantial data showing that masks are unsafe.)
Holden declined to comment for this story.
With cases spiking across the state, Gov. Steve Bullock (D-Mont.) announced Wednesday that masks would be mandatory in counties experiencing four or more active coronavirus cases. Dawson County, where the competition is held, has had eight confirmed cases total, but it’s unclear how many are currently active and whether the mask mandate would apply.
Shea has been concerned about the contest for months, especially because she’ll soon start a new job as a health care aide at an assisted-living facility, full of elderly residents. In the weeks leading up to her decision, Shea says she emailed the Miss Montana Board of Directors several times, asking about safety procedures and urging them to consider a mask mandate.
The board told Shea that masks would not be required, Shea said.
“When something is uneasy or scary for me, I look for information and knowledge,” said Shea, who regularly checks the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for coronavirus updates. “And everything was saying that masks can make a monumental difference if everyone consistently wears them.”
Shea wasn’t just worried about the contest itself. Before the competition, organizers and competitors, including the reigning Miss Montana, spend a week in Dawson County, running through rehearsals and preliminary contests. It’s like “summer camp,” Shea said: Two dozen girls are together from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Some of Shea’s favorite memories from previous years came out of the dressing room, she said — applying eye shadow for a younger competitor who isn’t quite sure how to do it, catching stray hairs that fell out of an updo. Zipping and lacing while Lizzo blares in the background.
All that would be dangerous this year.
The coronavirus is a “political issue” in Montana, where the majority of residents voted for President Trump, said Danielle Wineman, who won the Miss Montana title in 2015 and now lives in New York City. When she came back to her hometown in March, she said, she was the only one wearing a mask. Other people would stare and roll their eyes, Wineman said.
Montana was one of the first states to reopen.
“The running joke was, ‘Montana has been social distancing since we were founded,’” Shea said, a reference to how few people live in densely populated areas. “People just have this false sense of security.”
Shea was nervous to take such a public stand for social distancing, seen by many in the state as a “hot-button” issue, she said. While contestants are sometimes asked about politics in the interview portion of the competition, Wineman said, there is an “unspoken rule” that you’re not supposed to talk politics once you become Miss Montana. When you inherit the official Miss Montana social media accounts, passed down from one winner to the next, you’re expected to stay relatively “neutral,” Shea said.
“We are state representatives. I do want to be as representative of all Montanans as I can.” As Miss Montana, Shea has avoided taking a public stance on most divisive issues. But this issue felt different, she said.
“I couldn’t have been that brave,” Wineman said.
Shea knows she’s a role model for other people in the state, she said, especially young people. When she visits elementary schools in her crown, she says, she is immediately swarmed by kids yelling, “It’s a princess, it’s a princess.” Before coronavirus, she was asked to deliver the keynote address at a conference designed to inspire young girls interested in STEM fields. She told them about her own work related to skin cancer. After she spoke, she said, girls lined up for her autograph, eager to share their latest science projects.
“I didn’t know my voice could matter so much.” In her year as Miss Montana, Shea said, “I realized that my voice and my opinions have weight and have impact.”
Shea emailed the board as soon as she decided to abstain from this year’s competition, she said. Only one of eight members responded. Holden eventually reached out to request Shea’s “farewell letter,” which she said would be read at the contest.
“I think it’s being perceived as a completely political move by many involved,” including Holden, said Wineman. Multiple people on social media have accused Shea of “trying to grab attention,” she said. Whenever she sees a post like that, Wineman writes her own comment, she says, telling them they’re wrong.
On Shea’s own Instagram, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
“What a smart, responsible Miss MT,” one commenter wrote.
“Thank you for protecting others and taking a leadership role by not attending,” wrote another.
When Shea made her decision, she wasn’t trying to convince anyone else involved in the Miss Montana contest to do the same thing, she said. Still, she hopes this might have a “ripple effect” beyond the competition. For young women who might want to turn down a social invitation, but worry about judgment from friends, Wineman said, Shea provides a “citation point.”
“Now they can say, ‘I know I don’t have to do this, because I’ve witnessed this girl in this important position.”
Because Shea said no, Wineman said, they might feel like they can, too.