The road to becoming Miss Kansas started when Wichita native Hannah Marie Wagner, 19, was 3.
She didn’t have much choice back then: Her mom signed her up for Girl Scouts and ballet because, Wagner said, it was a rite of passage for a little girl.
But soon Wagner knew what she wanted. She saw the older girls in ballet, so she worked hard until she had her own pointe shoes and even toured during the summer, because that’s what a serious dancer does. She wanted a lead part in the school play, and she got it. She wanted top grades in high school and graduated in the top 10 percent.
And she loved watching Miss America on TV.
“I looooved it,” Wagner said, drawing out the word to convey how mesmerized she was by the women she saw on the screen, especially the ones from Kansas.
Still, she didn’t see herself as the pretty pageant girl. She thought that as a young girl she had “big old feet and knobby knees and big ears,” and that she looked “like a puppy or a can-opener,” Wagner said.
“I did not look cute.”
She gets her nails done once a month and mostly wears her hair up. But she loves to work out.
Her boyfriend of the past three years is a personal trainer, and they sometimes spend their weekends at the gym, often for three hours, according to a recent Twitter post.
She said she kept getting recruited to enter a pageant while dress shopping, so finally she consented to Larry Strong, a dress shop employee who also happened to be the executive director of the regional pageant in Augusta.
She said she wasn’t one of the girls who has been trying to make it in the pageant world for years and says she didn’t practice her “speedy little sassy walk” in her living room, or search the Internet for how to wave like a princess. She said she spent a week filling out the paperwork and brushed up on a dance routine she already knew but that was about it.
Onstage, Wagner said, “you’re worried about making sure you look good, making sure you’re not tripping, you’re smiling.”
The smiling part wasn’t hard: Everyone was exhausted. She wasn’t used to walking in heels for 10 hours a day, or going to bed past midnight and waking up at 5:30 a.m., as she and the other 33 Miss Kansas contestants had to do each of the three days of competition in Pratt last week.
During each of her two practice ballet routines, instead of spinning high on her toes, she kept slipping and falling down. Her calves were sore from all the heel-wearing.
“It’s like when you’re walking up stairs in the dark and you think there is one more step than there is and your foot just falls,” Wagner said. “You think you’re getting up there but you’re not.”
She saw some amazing performances, including that of one of her rivals, who had painted three canvases while upside down, then put them together dramatically to reveal a soldier. The nod to the military seemed shrewd, Wagner said. Still, when the lights went out after her performance of “Swan Lake,” Wagner could tell she’d done well.
She bowed and gracefully left the stage.
“The judges can still see you,” Wagner said. “And if they see you trotting off like a monster, that’s going to ruin every beautiful dance move you just did.”
After her victory she was whisked away to meet donors and to attend a banquet for the contestants. The cheering was so loud when her name was announced she couldn’t hear which other awards she’d won, besides the overall title, and said she still doesn’t know.
After the banquet, Wagner stayed with a host family and had to meet 50 people in an hour the next day. She could only remember five of their names. By day three after her coronation, she had already done four interviews and was heading to a celebrity chef competition that night.
Wagner said she had practice meeting clients as a marketing agent for the same company that employs her father, so she knows to be genuine.
“I’m not going to put on a little facade, ‘Oh my gosh, oh I love you, thank you,’ ” Wagner said. “I’m going to be honest and say thank you for all you do because people can see past a fake smile.”
One of her main causes in the competition is convincing women to push for more ambitious jobs with higher pay. But she had to give up her own job and put college on hold for a year after winning.
“I haven’t seen much of my real family, I haven’t seen much of my friends,” Wagner said. “It’s very scary putting Hannah on pause so I can take up Miss Kansas.”
Not to mention her boyfriend. They’re just getting used to the idea of having to spend so much time apart, while she travels in her official capacity, after three years together.
“Date night will have to go on pause for a little while,” Wagner said. “I don’t know if he’s ready to share me with everybody yet.
“What happens if I’m Miss America? I’ll have to pack him up in my luggage and take him with me.”
But it was her boyfriend who reminded her, after she won, that in just three nerve-wracking months she would get to dance on TV in front of hundreds of thousands of little girls, just like the girl she once was.
The thought made her burst into tears, because, she said, “that’s a dream come true.”