Twenty years ago, Miss Illinois Kate Shindle performed at Boardwalk Hall during Miss America week. The Brigantine native didn’t know that the final night would end with her being named Miss America 1998 and begin a new chapter of her life.
“It was half my life ago,” Shindle said, adding her reign as Miss America was a major milestone for her. “At times it feels so close — at other times, so distant.”
For Shindle, growing up just down the road from Atlantic City meant growing up with pageants. Her mother was a hostess during the competition in the 1980s, and Shindle participated as a young volunteer and got to be a part of the Miss America parade.
Pageants were a way for Shindle to perform as well as earn scholarship money. Shindle, who was studying sociology and theater at Northwestern University, said competing in Miss Illinois was easier than competing in her home state of New Jersey.
“I had a choice: fly home and compete locally or get on the L train.”
In the 20 years since Shindle was Miss America, she said, she has seen a lot of change in the competition.
“It’s an amazing foundation,” Shindle said, “but I’ve seen the focus drift. I didn’t wear the crown a lot. I was at the Statehouse lobbying for legislation, I spoke to students about AIDS and HIV prevention, and I raised money for cure research.”
Starting in 1989, contestants were required to have a social platform, which they would advocate for and educate people about on a national speaking tour. The Miss Americas of the 1990s had platforms that included ending homelessness, cancer research and Shindle’s platform of AIDS awareness.
While many current contestants advocate for causes, the most recent Miss Americas’ platforms have focused on healthy eating and lifestyle.
Shindle said 90 percent of her year was focused on activism. She’s noticed that today, Miss America has a lot more photo shoots and events.
“I guess what people don’t realize is there’s a lot of responsibility,” Shindle said. “I think the next generation of contestants and viewers is looking for authenticity.”
“Advice I’d have for the next Miss America would be, wake up every morning and think about what you want to do to make an impact on the world.”
Shindle said the Miss America Competition, though often questioned on its relevance, still empowers young women by giving them a voice.
Shindle holds no ill will toward the competition and said if it weren’t for her career schedule, she would attend the Miss America events during pageant week.
After her year as Miss America, Shindle focused on her theater career, saying she didn’t want her resume to read only “Miss America 1998.”
“I didn’t want it to be the only mark in my life,” she said.
Shindle lives in New York and has had a successful career on the stage, performing in productions of “Jekyll and Hyde” and “Legally Blonde.” In 2015, she was elected president of Actors’ Equity Association.
She still makes her way back home to Brigantine and has performed at the shore. She is currently on the national tour of “Fun Hom,” playing the lead role of Alison Bechdel.