I had the honor of watching Jessica Billings compete at Miss Pennsylvania USA 2013 where I cheered for my dearest friends, Laura DiFrancesco and Alex Taylor Deitz for Miss PA Teen USA 2013. I knew Jessica would be in the top 5 when I first saw her on the stage at the preliminaries. I feel truly fortunate that Jessica agreed to do this interview with me, so you can get to know her better. She is truly impressive, amazing, striking, and yet humble and sincere. I know she will represent Pennsylvania well at Miss USA 2013, just as her predecessor, Gina Cerilli, Miss PA USA 2010, did three years ago. Jessica is, indeed, one of the strongest contestants from the Miss Pennsylvania USA family. I hope you will enjoy my interview with her.
1) What made you to decide to compete in the pageant world?
When I was a little girl, my family used to annually attend this huge Fourth of July Parade. I loved sitting on the curb catching candy and watching all the people go by–I particularly loved the princesses. During my kindergarten school year, a little brochure came home in my backpack that said, “Hey Kids Want to ride in a parade?” This was like a dream come true for me and I tried out for a Jr. Royalty Program and won. Not being familiar with any type of pageantry, we later learned that it was a year that consisted of tons of parades, community service and appearances. It turned out to be one of the best years and I definitely perfected the “pageant wave.” After my year, I started to compete in natural pageants and modeling here and there. I was only allowed to compete in one pageant a year and had to raise my own sponsorship. One year, I had a dog walking business and spent the year walking all of my neighbor’s dogs! So the reason to the start of my pageantry was very simple; I wanted to ride in a parade when I was six years old!
2) After number of attempting to win the titles from different states,what got you to not give up on this?
Most people don’t know that the majority of my family is in Pennsylvania and that I was born in Erie. My family was forced to move to seek services for my brother, Jamey, who has autism. Other factors such as divorce, school and job opportunities led me to different states. I knew my move to Pennsylvania would raise a few eyebrows in the pageant world and I contemplated retiring. After considerable thought, I realized how my life had come full circle and I ended up where I started. My experiences and my family’s story brought me home so that I could share what I had learned. I have always been an advocate for autism and have served so many wonderful local, national and international organizations that I sincerely felt that I had something to contribute and began preparing for Miss Pennsylvania. I never gave up because I have always felt that pageantry was about the journey, the self-development, and always knowing that you are worthy and deserving of all life has to offer.
3) Name one or two former Miss USA or Miss Universe that you look up to as a role model?
I attended Miss USA 2004 and became an immediate fan of Shandi Finnessey. I attended some of the rehearsals and was so struck by her beauty and warm personality. I was thrilled when she won. A moment that made me realize the power of pageantry was when Shandi was giving up her title, they announced to the audience that she raised 30 million dollars for breast and ovarian cancer. For me, Shandi was the right mix of glamorous, genuine, and solid work ethics. I love that she never gave up on her dream!
4) What was your first thought when you won the Miss PA USA?
Right before the final announcement, I was so honored to be left standing and holding Laura’s hands. The moment my name was called, I was completely overcome with emotion and shock. I completely lost it when I looked over and saw my mom, who has supported me all of these years. So my first thoughts…..I’ve been blessed.
5) As of I know, you do a lot of volunteering with PACER. What inspires you to do this?
I feel that PACER is one of the premiere national advocacy organizations for people with disabilities. I’ve been involved in some capacity since 2000 and continue to this day as a Board Member of the Young Professional’s Board. My inspiration for becoming involved started in grade school. This is when I noticed how other kids reacted to being around my brother who has a severe form of autism. Some kids made fun of him, some kids imitated his vocalizations and some kids were just plain scared of him. I initially became a trained disabilities puppeteer and traveled throughout the Twin Cities doing shows and introducing young children to the puppets with disabilities. I believe once people/children become familiar with disabilities, the less likely they are to be afraid and to be more inclusive. PACER is not only a great advocacy group, they address important issues such as inclusion, technology, bulling and they continue to pave a brighter path for people with disabilities.
6) What is your advice for the girls who keep trying numbers of time to win the title?
I sincerely believe that God has a plan and things happen when they are meant to happen. I never thought I would say this, but I am so thankful that I did not win during my first attempts, because through the years, I have developed a better sense of who I am and my goals for this title. My advice is: be fearless, have faith in yourself, and be true to who you are.
7) What would benefit you as miss PA USA?
I’m two and half months into my year and have already had some life changing experiences. I don’t think I would “benefit” from any singular event or opportunity, because I feel like it is all the small pieces that will collectively be the “benefit.” I am loving each and every moment serving my time as Miss Pennsylvania and feel so blessed to be supported by so many wonderful people!
8) What is your goal in the future and as Miss PA USA?
For the future, I would love to host my own travel show that focuses on remote areas and hidden cultures~things people do not normally see when they are traveling. I will also continue to be an advocate for Autism and have already developed a prototype for an autism bag in honor of my brother. I plan to donate proceeds in hopes of finding a cure for autism. My goal as Miss Pennsylvania is to: A. Represent the beautiful ladies I competed with at Miss Pennsylvania USA and do my very best at Miss USA and B. Represent the Miss Pennsylvania Organization, serve nonprofits and organizations that are important to our communities, and to inspire young girls to set goals and to never, ever give up on a dream.
9) What are your favorite moments as Miss PA USA 2013?
You know how you always hear that a smile is a universal language? I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that to the extent I did when I was volunteering on site for Philabundance. Philabundance provides fresh produce to remote and impoverished areas of Philadelphia. This particular day, about a week before Christmas, our truck was positioned under a bridge in an area where most people didn’t speak English. On this freezing day, my job was to help distribute the food and make sure people were getting the proper amount–no more, no less. One man reached to take some carrots and when he took too many, I explained that some needed to be put back. He just gave me this smile as if to say, “You’re really going to take my carrots away?” I couldn’t help but smile back at him and watch him go on his merry way. It was odd moment of connection and I’ll never forget the look on the man’s face!
10) Describe yourself in three words and why?
- Adventurous. Whether backpacking through South America or climbing the Great Wall of China, I love to explore and learn about new cultures, places and people.
- Grateful. I count my blessings everyday! I remember running home after school one day to tell my mother I had scored 100% on a dreaded spelling test I had studied all week for. When I ran into the house, my mom proudly blurt out that my brother, Jamey, had learned to match some colors. Being severely autistic, he had been working on this skill for months and he finally got it. For me, this put a lot of life into perspective and to understand how truly blessed my life has been.
- Hopeful. I look forward to the day where I host my own travel show, “Journey with Jessica” and help my viewers see the beauty and cultures found in remote areas of the world. I also hope to continue advocating for autism and being a part on a global level of finding a cure.