Betty Cantrell Maxwell was only 21 when she was crowned Miss America 2016, and at the time she’d been doing pageants for only barely two years.
“It’s one of the only jobs I feel like where you go from a completely normal person to a celebrity overnight. And that is not easy,” Maxwell said. “It was a lot for me, especially going from basically nobody to celebrity.”
In an instant, she was the center of attention, often negative attention, and thus began her year of service. Isolation, cyberbullying, having her words twisted and ridiculed in the media, and nonstop travel and work were suddenly all part of her new life. But with it came being able to put a smile on children’s faces every day, using her gift for singing, and spiritual and personal growth no one can take away.
Maxwell’s determination to turn a negative into a positive as she was on the road 340 days of the year is something she hopes can now help others.
“It’s so easy to have a dark mindset in the world we live in—we live in a fallen world,” Maxwell said. “And although there will always be bad people out there, there will always be bullies, there will always be people trying to tear you down, you cannot give in. Because then the darkness of the world wins.”
“That’s the biggest thing: Happiness is a choice, and you have to choose it every single day.”
“You have to keep pushing through, you have to keep going,” she said. With vision and courage, Maxwell pursued her childhood dreams of becoming an actress and singer, and found on her journey faith, selflessness, and a lot of grit. She admits she doesn’t really have role models, but now that she’s become a figure young children look up to, she feels called to be a good model for them, and not just a celebrity or icon—because it’s a shame if the only role models young people have to look up to are merely famous, and not good.
“I feel like my head is in the right space. And I am so connected with my faith and standing up for what’s right and doing the right thing, and helping people get through their problems.”
In her memoir “Miss Unlikely,” Maxwell takes readers back through embarrassing childhood moments growing up on a farm in Georgia, vulnerable moments breaking up with ex-boyfriends, and backstage to media gaffes as she was on tour during her tenure as Miss America.
“People are usually embarrassed or terrified to talk about [those moments], so I was really adamant about including all of that in the book in order to be more relatable and to help young people who read my book to be able to feel more confident in themselves, that ‘Hey, I go through that, too.'”
“It was a very vulnerable position for me, especially talking about things that I’ve never really talked about publicly before,” Maxwell said. At the same time, writing parts of the book was therapeutic, as she was finally able to share her side of the story.
Maxwell is a classically trained singer, and originally began participating in pageants for the scholarship opportunities. She emphasizes that you don’t have to be someone from a wealthy background or trained from childhood for pageants to be able to chase your dreams and make it. Again and again, Maxwell would place second in the pageants she entered, but she always won the talent portion with her opera pieces. Her voice got her noticed, and that’s what led her to the Miss America pageant.
“I was a very unlikely contestant to win the title of Miss America, but you know, I never let that stop me from pursuing that as a goal,” Maxwell said. “And if you never try, then you’ll never know so I really feel like that’s the most important thing—at least you have to try. You can’t just never do it because that’s an automatic failure.”
Her message of “follow your dreams” is strongly accented by relentless hard work.
Throughout her journey, Maxwell was told “no” by countless people and sometimes even told to give up by those she expected most to support her. She had to choose how to respond to hard rejection and negativity because that’s what it takes if you intend to truly follow your dreams.
“My life is a prime example of that,” Maxwell said.
“It really was a challenge but it opened my eyes up to what I really am capable of.”
One Step at a Time
Maxwell says that going on her Miss America tour was really the first time she had been independent.
“A lot changed in me during that year,” Maxwell said. One of those things was her faith.
Maxwell grew up in a Greek Orthodox family, where faith was very much a part of their life.
“[Greek Orthodox is] very, very traditional, therefore a lot of people don’t really stick to it or know about it,” Maxwell said. Once on her own, she realized she had to make the decision to embrace her faith for herself. For the first time in her life, faith played a role in her life because she herself wanted it to.
“I began praying a lot more often every single night. God, please give me the strength to finish this day. Please give me the strength to finish this month. Give me the strength to finish this year—because I cannot do it alone,” she said.
In addition to rediscovering her faith, Maxwell found inspiration in service. She learned to choose not to look at her situation as grueling travel or a taxing schedule, but how much it could impact others.
“That really got me up and going every single day—the feeling that you get when you walk into a hospital full of kids and they look at your crown and they can’t believe that Miss America is coming to visit them,” she said.
As Miss America, she served as the National Goodwill Ambassador for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals.
“You just think about the situation that you’re in, versus the situation of the people who you’re visiting, and the people you’re going to see put a smile on their face. It really does open your eyes that you’re so blessed to be in this position right now, that taking one second of it for granted is one second you’re going to regret,” she said.
One of the highlights of her year was the USO tours, where she sang for military members and their families.
“Getting to sing and use my God-given gifts to help our troops feel a little bit more at home or feel a little bit more loved, that just that made my year so, so complete,” she said. “They give their lives and make the ultimate sacrifice for us, and that was something that I felt like I could really have an impact on, and do something good and important.”
Maxwell transformed the taxing role into one that solidified her faith and inner strength. She took everything she learned, being in a position where everything she did or said was limited and controlled, and is now an ardent motivational speaker. She looks back on all the rejection she endured and is now prepared for any response during her auditions as an actress and singer.
“Being Miss America gave me very thick skin,” she said. “I feel like I can really handle anything now. After that any type of rejection I get, I can handle it. I take it in stride, get up the next day try again, God is still good. Even if the answer is no, God is still good. And you know, you just have to get up and keep trying. Every single day is a gift and another chance to try again.”
The end of the tour hasn’t meant the end of Maxwell’s journey or the end of difficult obstacles.
“Every day I have to remind myself of what I’ve been doing, what I’ve overcome, and the things that people have told me versus what I’ve actually done in my life,” she said. “And when I remind myself of that, it really helps me to keep going if I receive a rejection for a part or an audition. I have to remind myself, OK, it’s just one setback, I got to keep going. Got to keep pushing forward, got to look for new and better things. And I really feel like this book is a testament to that, to what I’ve been through and what I’ve overcome.”
“And I really hope that it inspires and motivates every single person that reads it to be better versions of themselves, and if they’re in a dark place in their life, to find the light and find the reason to keep going, to choose happiness.”