Cecilia Merrell remembers her father made sure she and her siblings were always well fed as they grew up, while their mother worried they were overeating.
Merrell said her father and his sister grew up as foster children in a home that meticulously tracked all of its food.
“His sister was crying because she was so hungry, and he went and got her a tortilla — just a tortilla — and he got beat the next day because he said he ate it,” she said. “The head (of the home) counted the tortillas. … I will remember it forever.”
Merrell of Carson City was crowned the 2019 Silver State Curvy Queen Elite for women ages 35 and older in November. With the backing of the pageant system and her director, Amber Neff, now she’s out in the community asking for support to prevent others from going hungry or homeless.
The Silver State Pageants include the Curvy Queen and Celebrity competitions. The celebrity pageant focuses on younger and inexperienced girls ages from babies to misses. The Curvy Queen celebrates plus-size women for size 12 and up. Both competitions offer various opportunities by age divisions and chances for local participants to go all the way to nationals through certain requirements.
Neff won her first pageant in 2016 but said the system was shut down so she sought to revive it.
“It didn’t exist anymore, and I felt there was a need in Northern Nevada and Nevada in general for this type of pageant,” Neff said. “It built the esteem of a lot of women in it. I felt that some of my best friends came from that experience.”
Plus-size pageants for women size 12 and up are costly, Neff said. In addition to the travel expenses, pageants on average require about $700 to $800 to enter plus clothing and makeup, rehearsing the contestant’s talent, securing sponsorships or other assistance.
Neff said there is no other requirement for women to enter a pageant other than their age, the minimum of which for Curvy Queen is 18 years.
“We think it’s more built on the idea that women are empowering each other with the need to be validated, to feel beautiful,” she said. “And if they didn’t when they got there, then they do when they leave. And I just felt like this is something they had to continue.”
Contestants are required to choose certain platforms, or community issues, they have a desire to promote or wish to learn more about. Platforms encourage community involvement and advocacy, Neff said, and it helps the contestants to think beyond themselves.
“I usually tell the women to pick something they’re already involved in or something their children are involved in,” she said.
Once pageant winners are selected, the pageant will assist with and organize fundraisers on the winners’ behalf, Neff said.
“They become an advocate for that platform, and the queen will support it,” she said.
Merrell, choosing to assist the hungry and the homeless, is promoting organizations Faith Hope and Love and the Karma Box Project to gather food from grocery stores, collect food to have on hand and build gift baskets for those in need. Merrell said it’s something she’s done for some time but previously lacked certain resources to carry out her plans with much success. So far, she’s already having some community members come to her through social media, including a younger population. One teenage girl, who didn’t have a way to connect with Merrell and didn’t make herself known as a youth at first, requested food, she said.
“I told her about the Karma box, and I said I have some stuff here, and my husband — my husband, my bodyguard, my driver — I told him we’re going to meet this person and that we’re taking them food,” Merrell said. “She mentioned her sister liked macaroni and cheese. She was so happy, and she stayed in touch with me on Facebook. Being able to do that with the support of the pageant has made it so much better.”
Merrell said she helps with homeless events twice a year in the winter and spring, helping to give out about 500 hot dogs to the transient population last April, and she’s also helped to give out clothes, blankets and toiletries.
She’s also assisting the Hudson Foundation in Reno, which supports first responders. She made nine pies the night before Thanksgiving, which she was supposed to deliver to some of Reno’s fire stations for the holiday, but the weather kept her in Carson City and instead she disbursed them to the local stations.
While she has done these events in the past individually, this next year, she said she will be doing that as a titleholder wearing her crown.
Neff said Merrell’s involvement since 2016 when she first decided to begin pageantry has shown how much she’s grown.
“I can see it in her photographs and I can see it in her personal interactions,” Neff said. “I can see her blossom.”
Neff said she wants to encourage more local contestants to join the pageant next November, saying she enjoys watching the relationships unfold between older and younger contestants.
“Your older, more mature contestants will mentor the younger ones, and whether it’s about pageant stuff or whether it’s about life, that relationship bond happens there,” she said. “I’m already seeing it with our girls on Facebook Messenger. They’re talking with our girls. It’s nice to see everybody still staying connected.”
For information on the pageant, visit http://silverstatepageants.org.