Clark Janell Davis isn’t afraid of a challenge. She’s just grateful that the Miss America competition doesn’t include a reading portion.

The 18-year-old native of Lexington, Kentucky is this year’s youngest Miss America competitor. Despite growing up with dyslexia, a learning disability that held her back in grade school, she started college at the University of Kentucky when she was 16 years old.

She’s also one of a handful of this year’s Miss America contestants who’s competed in pageants for the first time this year. She was named Miss Horse Capital of the World in January, the qualifying pageant that brought her to the Miss Kentucky competition in July. She beat out 29 other competitors for the title.

“When I knew there were girls who had competed years and years in the pageant system, I was for sure nervous,” Davis said over the phone. “But I try to look at new adventures as something that God wanted to happen.”

Davis will join 51 other young women in Atlantic City in the coming weeks, all competing to succeed Kira Kazantsev as the new Miss America. Preliminary competitions run from Sept. 8 through Sept. 10, with the final pageant and crowning culminating on Sept. 13.

She doesn’t see her pageant naivete as a hindrance.

Stories like Davis’ bring up a few questions: Is fresh perspective a winning trait for a Miss America contestant? Or does having years of experience, titles and crowns matter more when it comes down to the sequined wire?

There are merits to both sides, according those in pageant circles.

“This is something that will certainly vary from year to year,” said Josh Randle, chief operating officer for the Miss America Organization, about the ratio of pageant newcomers to veterans. “In a given year there are over 8,000 young women competing in hundreds of local competitions across the country. Some contestants are new to the Miss America system while others have been competing for several years.”

It’s not completely unheard of for a near first-time competitor to be crowned. It actually happened recently, Randle said, with Miss America 2011 Teresa Scanlan. She won the title — at 17, one of the younger title winners in the history of the competition — after only participating in her local and state qualifying pageants.

Previous Miss Kentucky titleholders have been giving Davis advice, since they’ve been through the Miss America ringer before.

“All the former Miss Kentuckys say I should break the rules,” she said. “That will be easy; I don’t know any of the rules.”

More often than not, in the Miss America competition, competitors have at least a little pageant experience. That experience could play to their favor, Randle said.

“Seasoned competitors also have advantages in learning more about the organization and familiarizing themselves with the phases of competition, giving them an opportunity to learn what the judges are looking for and how they can improve their preparation,” he said.

This year’s Miss Iowa Taylor Wiebers started competing in pageants when she was 9 years old, winning Li’l Miss Clinton County. She’d grow up to become Miss Clinton County, her qualifying title before getting the state crown. Both Miss Alabama Meg McGuffin and April Nelson, Miss Louisiana, won their respective states’ Outstanding Teen titles.

That same accolade goes for Sarah Hider, this year’s Miss Ohio and 2008’s Miss Ohio Outstanding Teen.

Competing in Miss America is a dream Hider has had since she was 9 years old. Searching through old photographs, she found pictures of her grandfather — who died before Hider was born — surrounded by women in beautiful dresses and crowns. Those were Miss Ohio contestants, Hider’s mom would explain, and Hider’s grandfather loved going to the pageants.

Hider, 24, started watching the Miss America pageant on television soon after that discovery. She attended her first Miss Ohio pageant the year before she competed and won the Outstanding Teen title.

She went on to compete in her first Miss Ohio pageant in 2009, and then took a four-year break from competing when she interned for non-profit women’s advocacy organizations and retail companies such as Versace and Nordstrom. The former experience plays into her social platform this year, “Women Hold Up Half The Sky,” investing in young girl’s and women’s potential for change.

But if it wasn’t for her pageant experience, namely the interview portion, she wouldn’t have landed any of those positions. Hider said she’ll bring in her pageant experience, as well as the know-how she’s gained generally from life, to help her win the Miss America title.

“I have the Midwest charm and a down-to-earth personality. But I’ve lived in New York City and Chicago. I understand how the big city works,” she said. “I think having that well-rounded perspective on America and people in America make me a great candidate.”

Haely Jardas, 24, wasn’t always a pageant competitor — she says she was a tomboy growing up who never wore high heel shoes.

This year, her last year of eligibility with the Miss America Organization, she decided to give the Miss District of Columbia title one more shot, and won. In Atlantic City she’ll be on a pageant stage for the fifth time in her life.

When she moved to Washington D.C. as a freshman at American University, a member of the school’s music department implored Jardas to audition for the Miss District of Columbia program. Not knowing it was the Miss America qualifying pageant, Jardas said, “Why not?” It was her freshman spunk and theater background that she said made her try the pageant.

She went on to compete in 2010, 2011 and 2012 before, like Hider, taking a few years off before coming back to the pageant this year.

The competition, understandably, could be a stressful situation particularly for someone like Jardas who has generalized anxiety disorder. Her years with the Miss America Organization has helped fuel and expose her platform on mental illness awareness, as well as helped her get over her anxious tendencies.

“I’ve had situations where it’s made me a tough sailor. It’s hard to rustle me,” she said. “When we get to Miss America, I’ll be the calmest person there.”

“I’m just ready for the craziest two weeks of my life so far.”

Contact: 609-272-7256

Twitter @ACPress_Tracey

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