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A survivor herself, Miss Connecticut focuses on helping cancer patients

In 1933, Maria Bergeron from West Haven became the only Miss Connecticut to ever win a Miss America competition.

Thursday night, with the finals of the reconceptualized Miss America 2.0 taking place in Mohegan Sun Arena, there was the possibility that perhaps 22-year-old Burlington native Jillian Duffy might, in her home state, become the second Miss Connecticut to win the crown. Indeed, Duffy, a pediatric cancer and stroke survivor who competed as a vocal talent and behind a platform of health awareness, came close — she was fourth runner-up.

Miss Virginia, Camille Shrier, won the Grand Title, replacing 2019 Miss America Nia Imani Franklin in an event that's undergone a conceptual reinvention in the past two years.

The event and the brand are now focused on reflecting the roles of women in contemporary society. Candidates are not judged on outward appearance and there's not a swimsuit competition. Instead, the competition places emphasis on the women's own voices and social initiative platforms based around their own experiences, goals and education — all of which, they hope to demonstrate, will prepare them for the intense job of being Miss America.

The crowd for Miss America 2.0, which was televised live on NBC and hosted by Mario Lopez, with judges Lauren Ash, Karamo Brown and Kelly Rowland, was divided by highly partisan family members, fans and friends behind the 51 competitors from each state and the District of Columbia. In fact, talking to audience members, it was hard to find anyone who wasn't emotionally behind one competitor or another.

But there were a few objective observers.

"I don't know if I'm for Miss Connecticut because I haven't seen her or heard what she has to say or what she'll do," said Opal Bovat of Ledyard, who was attending with her daughter Kim Hotchkiss. "It would be nice if she won."

"I've grown up watching pageants and this was sort of on a bucket list," said Hotchkiss, an Uncasville resident. "I never figured it would happen, but then it was here at the Sun so that's about as close as you can hope for. We thought, 'Why is it here?' But it is, so that made it easy."

As for decided partisanship throughout the hall — there was applause or whoops of support each time a competitor was introduced or interviewed — it's also true the volume ratcheted significantly with every sighting of or scheduled appearance by Duffy.

Longtime focus

Winning the competition "is something I've wanted for so long," Duffy said Tuesday at a media interview session in a boardroom in the Sun Convention Center. "I've been involved with Miss America for 10 years and look at it as such an amazing platform that will help me realize my goals to work in pediatric cancer research and marketing. That's what I'm focused on, no matter what obstacles there are." She smiled. "But, yes, it would be really nice to win here in my home state."

As she did in Thursday's finals, Duffy, a business and marketing major at Southern Connecticut State University, spoke during the interview with eloquence and passion. She said she started competing in pageants when she was 8. At 13, she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, suffered a stroke, and underwent treatment and rehab for two years. After recovery, she entered the Miss Connecticut competition four times before she won, and her focus is on helping cancer patients.

"No one chooses to get cancer," she said. "At first, I thought about nursing school but realized early on that my efforts were better focused on bringing attention to resources for patients and families, particularly through the Connecticut Children's Hospital."

Big night

The televised finals concluded a week of appearances, interviews and preliminary rounds in which competitors earned scholarships based on demonstrations of leadership, advocacy — each focused on an area of social impact — and talent.

When the program went live Thursday, the 51 competitors were introduced with brief biographies, then the field was cut to 15, then seven semi-finalists, and then the final five. Duffy made each cut, leading to an onstage talent competition. It was there that she encountered what might be considered an unlucky draw.

Though Duffy sang "Once Upon a Time" from the musical "Brooklyn" with earnest tunefulness, she was immediately followed by Miss Georgia Victoria Hill, who'd won the Overall Talent during the preliminary rounds. Hill, a professional opera singer, followed Duffy with a powerful selection from Gaetano Donizetti's opera "La fille du regiment."

Duffy didn't survive to the final three.

Though confident and poised throughout, Duffy indicated in the Tuesday interview that there is a bigger picture to all of this.

"America needs a champion and I want to be a testament to what this organization has come to stand for," Duffy said. "I've wanted to do this since I was 8 years old and my commitment and dreams haven't changed. This will be my last competition and I've enjoyed it all so much and I've learned so much. Whatever happens, I've been fortunate to work with the Children's Cancer Center in ways that maybe I couldn't have otherwise. And that will continue no matter what."

r.koster@theday.com

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