By Mayzie Purviance
“The Miss Universe Organization empowers women to realize their personal, professional and philanthropic goals through experiences that build self-confidence and act as catalysts for future success. We celebrate beauty, all forms of it, and provide the tools that help women to feel their most beautiful: ‘Confidently Beautiful.’” That’s the official mission of the Miss Universe Organization (MUO) stated on the Miss USA website.
Miss USA, whether society wants to admit it or not, is a role model for young girls. Between movies, TV shows and social media, it’s hard for a young woman to not at least envy their state’s contender for the crown. Miss USA is a public figure and her views can influence those who put her on a pedestal.
Merissa Underwood is the current Miss Montana who is set to compete for the title of Miss USA. Underwood is a Californian native, her family owns a cabin in Montana, and was able to enter the running for Miss Montana under said cabin’s address.
“This term is called state-hopping in the pageant world, and it’s something we’re seeing more and more of,” Tahnee Peppenger, 2015 Miss Montana USA said.
It is rumored that Underwood was recruited to run for Miss Montana, Peppenger said. Bigger states, such as California and Texas, have hundreds of girls competing to represent their state in the Miss USA Pageant. However, Montana is not one of these states. According to Peppenger, around 10-20 women typically enter the Miss Montana USA pageant.
Peppenger grew up in Montana and said her family is split between military and agricultural backgrounds. She attended Montana State University in Bozeman and obtained a sports medicine degree. Currently, Peppenger resides in Great Falls and is a physician recruiter and practice development specialist for Benefis Health Systems. Peppenger’s family owns a cow-calf operation in Geyser, Montana.
“I was raised as a conventional Montana gal, you know, hunting, fishing, backpacking, horseback riding,” Peppenger said.
“I was raised in the cowboy/western lifestyle, if you will. I used to team rope and really enjoyed that. And cows are great but horses are totally my thing,” she laughed. “I ran for Miss Montana because I thought ‘You know, I AM Miss Montana.’ I embody the qualities, the values, the lifestyle and principles of a Montana woman and I wanted to represent our state and I knew no one, quite honestly, could do a better job than me.”
Prior to running for Miss Montana, Peppenger had entered two pageants. One of which was Miss Rodeo Montana, in which she was crowned runner up.
“I just found that a Montana female is an incredible creature that is a force to be reckoned with. A Montana woman is a woman of integrity, grace, beauty, strength and grit,” Peppenger said. “And I think that finding females like that this day and age is a rarity. I wanted to be Miss Montana to represent the greatest state in the Union. I thought it was an opportunity to showcase a female that is someone who I would look up to and want my daughters to emulate one day. That’s what I was looking for.”
On Wednesday, October 23, Miss Montana USA 2020, Underwood, shared various graphics and false statistics about agriculture to her Instagram story. A quick glance at Underwood’s Instagram profile shows many photos of her promoting veganism, but these specific posts were different: They were an attack on Montana’s number one economy, agriculture.
“Her comments about animal agriculture seem to be rather misinformed and uneducated. These comments were certainly not well-received among Montanans in general,” Peppenger said.
Underwood shared images and infographics depicting animal agriculture as unsustainable and problematic to the environment. One graphic was titled, “Animal agriculture is the most destructive industry facing the plant today.”
“I think the catalyst wasn’t that she was promoting a vegan, plant-based diet…I don’t have an issue with that. I’ve got friends who are vegan and that’s a lifestyle choice. Some people have to be vegan for dietary restrictions — veganism is not the problem,” Peppenger stated. “When she put up those statistics that were directly combatting and challenging animal agriculture, that was the issue.”
Peppenger said there are numerous ways for people to take part in creating a better environment and healthier planet, like biking to work or recycling plastics.
“You know, I get it,” Peppenger said. “‘Save the planet, go shop second hand’ — which is quite contradicting because I can guarantee you, her ball gowns aren’t second-hand – and she’s competed multiple times.”
Peppenger said she is glad Underwood’s direct attack on animal agriculture sent Montanans into a tizzy.
“If you’re going to be deceitful about where you come from and the state you’re representing, the least you can do is pretend to a be a part of that state’s culture,” Peppenger said. “It would probably behoove an individual to educate themselves on the number one economy in this state.”
Although the Miss USA pageant does not require contestants to run on a personal platform, Peppenger said it can be done. After winning Miss Montana in 2015, Peppenger used her resources and influence to try and make a difference for veterans, specifically veteran welfare. Peppenger said she made 72 public appearances her year as Miss Montana.
“It just goes to show that when you’re here and present, you can actually impact your state,” Peppenger said.
“At the end of the day, those statistic and the misinformation she is touting has a global impact,” Peppenger continued. “As farmers and ranchers, we feed society, we are the backbone of America. I think that’s what’s frustrating people, is the false image she’s painting agriculture to be — and it’s an image of self-gain. Is that the image we want to teach our young women?”
Miss Montana has 6,000+ followers on Instagram and nearly 8,000 likes on Facebook. Miss USA has 600,000+ followers on Instagram and 1.5 million likes on Facebook. Make no mistake, what these women post influences someone out there.
Marissa Underwood welcomed an interview with the Western Ag Reporter and said she would “Love to be a part!” However, in light of recent occurrences, she was “advised” last minute to not participate in the interview due to “safety concerns.” Hopefully, we’ll hear her side of the story soon! MP.