Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

My duties as a reporter broadened last week to accommodate the chance to interview a beauty pageant winner.

Courtney Phillips, who makes her home in the Fairlington section of Arlington, on July 10 was picked as “Miss for Virginia” by contest judges down in South Hill, based on her performance in the interview, swimsuit and evening gown competition. She will travel to Las Vegas in October (Covid-19 precautions pending) to compete with 51 young women for the national title of Miss for America.

A few caveats: “Miss for America” is not the same as the better-known, century-old Miss America pageant, whose 2020 installment was cancelled due to the pandemic. It’s a new offshoot of the corporate-sponsored Mrs. America organization, which is open to married, divorced and widowed contestants.

Because I am decades older than Phillips, I wasn’t surprised that she drew a blank when I asked her if she recalled Bert Parks, the singer who hosted the Miss America pageant on TV from 1955-79. Nor did she recall the famous (but exaggerated) “bra burning” feminist protest at the 1968 pageant in Atlantic City.

But Phillips, 36, is a serious, accomplished communications professional who will devote her year-long reign to improving society’s handling of mental health issues.

“I was personally affected by mental illness because my father had PTSD and coped with alcoholism,” she told me. “I lost him 12 years ago. When I started struggling with my own anxiety and PTSD, it took 12 years to overcome while competing in pageants.”

She learned coping mechanisms for “invisible wounds” and told her family story, said Phillips, whose mother died of cancer when she was 7. “And I realized I was having an impact on other people’s lives” at the early age of 15 when her comments after the 9/11 attacks comforted others.

A native of Houston, Phillips came to Arlington three years ago to do marketing and messaging for federal agencies, a task that, combined with next year’s Miss for Virginia expenses-paid travel, will make her “dual-hatted.”

The former Miss Northern Virginia now Miss for Virginia is well aware of feminist critiques of beauty contests and the fact that the Miss America pageant in 2018 discontinued the swimsuit event in the belief that it was degrading. She tells naysayers that her own experience in pageants is that they “empower women and give them confidence. We worked to be the very best version of our self — inside and outside, whether it’s in the gym or the community.”

Mentally, she added, one must “be able to have conversations on stage with judges and a personal interviewer. It’s empowering to be able to walk onstage to show the best of yourself, your full body — mentally, physically and what you do in the community.”

I couldn’t help but ask: Do women competing in beauty pageants get rivalrous with one another? “I feel we all lift each other up,” Phillips said. “I love being part of an organization backstage, where you’re feeling nervous. I remember grabbing the hands of other contestants and saying a prayer before going onstage.”

De-Confederacize Lee Highway? After years of focusing on broad issues of re-imagining the 4.5-mile stretch in Arlington, the nonprofit Lee Highway Alliance joined with county board members last week to launch a community engagement process to select a less-controversial name; a national trend.

My neighborhood of East Falls Church boasts one intersection particularly packed with Robert E. Lee’s tottering legacy.

The intersection of Lee Highway and Underwood St., I was reminded by historic conservationist Mike Nardolilli, is a twofor.

Underwood was likely named for U.S. District Judge John C. Underwood, who in 1865 led a Norfolk, Va., grand jury to indict Lee for treason.

In our day, a new set of 27, $1 million-dollar townhouses is rising at this intersection. NVHomes is borrowing the name of both a Columbia Pike neighborhood and one given to Lee’s Arlington House during the Civil War: “Arlington Heights.”