Stilettos, ballgown, a giant wave, an even bigger smile, and a humongous crown on my head.
I am escorted into a new ballroom each weekend to give the keynote address at events like the Governor’s Ball and the Everglades Foundation Gala, chatting it up with Sting and John McEnroe. Weekdays under the crown are spent meeting at the State Capitol and speaking at schools, being stopped dozens of times along the way for children to ask, "Are you a princess?" (Not exactly.) "Did you come here in a limo?" (Well, yes.)
I conversed with billionaire CEOs and nonprofit executive directors. I posed on the front steps of the White House.
"…And your new Miss Florida, Rachael Todd—she's on her way to becoming Miss America!"
Cue record scratching.
Excuse me? Hold on while I pick myself up off the floor.
"You think I'm the best woman here to become a role model to young girls everywhere? Do you understand what I struggle with every day?"
But obviously, they didn't.
I recognized my lack of self-esteem at an early age; I was placed in advanced classes at school, and I have red hair. Talk about a recipe for adolescent disaster. I was the ugliest girl in school. I was excluded from sleepovers. I constantly compared myself to other girls around me. My strangeness hung around my neck like an albatross.
In college, I finally began to realize that I didn't have to be the girl everyone told me I was during adolescence. I started to see myself as worthy—like I had something to contribute. I took on leadership positions, I helped plan events for charities, and then, I discovered pageantry. One day as I was walking through campus I saw a poster: "Compete for Miss University of Central Florida and win scholarship money."
I needed the scholarship money, I loved performing, and I assumed I would figure out the rest as I went along.
Long story short, I graduated college in May of 2009, and shortly thereafter found myself competing for the title of Miss Florida—me and 47 of the most amazing, talented, driven young women I had ever seen.
The truth is, that week of competition I asked myself what I was doing there no less than 7,488 times. I questioned my worth when I stood next to them. I called my mom in tears to tell her that I had no business being there. My insecurities were doing their best to rip me apart. Those thought patterns were so automatic, I couldn't escape them.
When they announced me as the winner, I did not yet see in myself what that panel of judges did.
So here I am, six years and many, many galas, speaking engagements, mistakes, heartaches, successes, and opportunities later.
What have I learned about confidence, self-esteem, and the art of "owning the room"?
Well, it still starts and ends with the innate feelings of inferiority—that little voice of doubt. It doesn't matter if you're a high schoolgirl, a mother of three, Miss Florida, Miss Iceland, or Miss Universe—we all struggle with it. But we can control the negative self-talk.