BY MELISSA HAGAN; PHOTOS BY TERESA TUNO
At only 21 years old, Panama City native Victoria “Tori” Cowen has achieved many of her dreams. Tori is a senior at Florida State University studying marketing and professional sales and is on the Dean’s List. She studied dance since the age of two at Panama City Dance Academy and was a Golden Girl on the FSU Dance Team. She started her own non-profit organization at the age of 15. And oh yeah – she’s the reigning Miss Florida 2014 and the only other state winner from Bay County since 1967!
Victoria began dreaming of being on the Miss America stage when she was just six years old. She launched her pageant journey as a tot in the Cinderella International Scholarship Pageant system. The system is now celebrating more than 30 years of leadership and has become the most revered youth development program of its kind around the world, topping the $100,000 mark in awards and scholarships. Tori won the international title in multiple age divisions in the years 2002 (age 7-9), 2005 (age 10- 12), and 2009 (age 13-17). Each title awarded a $2000 education savings bond as well as a $4000 college scholarship.
Her participation in the Cinderella system prepared her to eventually compete in the Miss America Pageant. The national pageant is now the largest provider of scholarships for women in the country, making more than $45 million in scholarship funding available at the local, state and national levels. Victoria confirms, “I am very fortunate, the Miss America program has provided me with the opportunity to earn more than $35,000 in scholarships that will allow me to graduate from FSU debt-free, as well as the possibility of studying abroad or completing my master’s degree. I wouldn’t be the woman I am today without this organization. It has shaped me and helped me realize my dreams.”
Competing for the Miss Florida title can be costly and many believe that it costs more to compete than the awards contestants ultimately receive. Even though Tori was fortunate to have the full support of her parents, and especially her younger brother, Christian, she mentions that it was important to her to compete without adding a financial burden to her family by securing sponsorships from area businesses and organizations. “ I learned that you cannot be afraid to ask for help. Learning to “ask,” whether it is for money or other resources to fulfill your vision, is a vital skill for life. I hope to inspire little girls and young women, especially those with limited financial means, by letting them know that if you have a dream, you can find a way to make it happen.”
Competing for the Miss America title was Tori’s ultimate goal and becoming Miss Florida was the prerequisite. After a lifetime of preparation, Tori competed this year for the Miss Florida title but originally only placed first runner-up and did not qualify to compete in the national Miss America competition. But the judges and pageant committee discovered a tabulation error, and the title was hers. In fact, she didn’t realize she had actually won until five days after the pageant. She admits, “When I got the call from the state director, I only had four hours to pack my bags and travel to St. Petersburg for a press conference by noon the next day, followed by an immediate move to Miami to prepare for the Miss America competition. The key to being a good Miss Florida is flexibility. You have to be ready for anything at a moment’s notice.”
Tori had the opportunity to test her flexibility upon her arrival at the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City. After a delayed flight in Washington, D.C., she got into Atlantic City at the early hour of 2:30 a.m. Her itinerary had her first order of business to be camera ready for official check-in and first day rehearsals at 5:30 a.m. “I remember setting my alarm clock for 3:45 a.m. and only got one hour of sleep. Miss America is definitely a marathon – for two entire weeks – and the girl who ends up winning is usually the one who is still smiling at the end.”
When you think about Miss America, glitzy evening gowns, swimsuits, and crowns come to mind. However, there are many sacrifices a competitor has to make. We only see the final results when the show is broadcast on national television. It may look easy from our armchair, but after talking with Tori, the extreme discipline and dedication becomes apparent. “I wanted to win the swimsuit award and worked with former Miss USA, Chelsea Cooley, and fitness expert, A. T. Dunn, to achieve my goals. It required extreme workout regiments consisting of one hour sessions on the treadmill, circuit training, Pilates, and dance practice. Additionally, I had to adhere to a strict diet using “the perfect plate” to control portion sizes and drinking eight ounces of water every hour.” Her sacrifices paid off with her winning the coveted Lifestyle and Fitness Award and placing 3rd Runner-up in the national pageant.
With all these preparations and restrictions, what does a day in the life of Miss Florida actually look like? Tori found it difficult to find the answer, because each day is a different adventure. “As the reigning Miss Florida, I will spend the year traveling around the state promoting my platform as well as serving as a goodwill ambassador for the national pageant platform, Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. Every single day and appearance I make is like a different internship. I am around different people and different industries and participating in different types of events. My perspective has changed since becoming Miss Florida. I always had a very strict agenda, but it has really opened my eyes to new opportunities and possibilities after Miss Florida.” Her rigorous travel schedule and commitment to represent the state organization has required her to take a year off from her studies at FSU to complete her year of service.
Tori recounted a recent special appearance at North Bay Haven Charter Academy where she taught a class about Everglades Literacy as part of her state platform and year of service through a partnership with the Everglades Foundation. “I am involved in school tours across the state of Florida bringing awareness to students about the Florida Everglades ecosystem and will also be traveling to Washington, D.C. to advocate for the protection and preservation of this vital natural resource. The program was initiated by Rachel Todd, Miss Florida 2009, and continues to partner with the Miss Florida organization.
This isn’t the first time Tori has embarked on advocacy. At the ripe age of 15, she spearheaded her own non-profit organization, “One Chance – One Choice” focused on empowering youth to make the right decisions. She shared her own story of transitioning from a private Christian school to public school and encountering new challenges and being involved in a serious car accident resulting in injury. “I realized after that experience the importance of making good decisions. Even though I believe in second chances, I know it only takes one bad decision to change your life forever. I want to empower young girls to make the right decisions and provide mentorship, guidance, and trust.”
The sparkling crown on Tori’s head also brings on quite a bit of attention, especially from little girls. Recently, her little fans have been asking Tori if she is Elsa from the movie Frozen. “It was the cutest thing – I had little girls asking me if I was rich, if I lived in a castle, and even if I had magic powers.” Her love of children was apparent and reflects in her stories about recent appearances in Panama City. “I love being in the schools, because that is where you really reach the kids. The crown gets me in the door, but you have to have substance behind you to really make a difference. My personal platform has given me that substance to impact the lives of young women through mentoring, promoting self-esteem, and leadership. Little things can have a huge impact on the course of your life, and those are the things you never forget!”
When asked how this once-in-a lifetime experience has changed her, Tori reflects and insists she’s still just like any other 21 year-old. “I never think of myself as different. The crown and title doesn’t really change you as a person; it just gives you a bigger voice and helps you reach more people. You have to have a servant’s heart! I want to make a difference and leave a legacy and inspire little girls as they dream of growing up and becoming Miss America.”
After a brief time spent with Tori, her captivating inner beauty shines a light on everyone she meets. Kahlil Gibran says, “Beauty is not in the face; beauty is in the light of the heart.” If a dream is a wish your heart makes, then our Victoria Cowan is definitely living her dream with her heart in the right place to inspire others to achieve their dreams.
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