The Coaching King of Pageant Queens

Houston's pageant starmaker J.J. Smith on his secret weapon for winning that crown: The Interview.

By Steven Devadanam January 5, 2016 Published in the January 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Tension fills the air like a giant cloud of glitter confetti. Karlie Hay and Thekla McCarty—both blonde, both in sky-blue dresses—grip each other’s hands, their wide, nervous smiles growing wider with each passing second. The tuxedoed emcee of November’s 2016 Miss Texas Teen USA Pageant unapologetically hams it up, drawing out the moment by launching into a staple pageant speech. If the reigning Miss Texas Teen cannot fulfill her obligations, he explains, the first-runner-up will step into her sequined shoes...

The crowd groans. They know the rules; they just want to hear who gets the tiara. Finally the emcee gets on with it: “Your first runner-up is… La Grange, Thekla McCarty!”

The ballroom erupts in shrieks and applause. McCarty graciously cradles a bouquet of red roses and makes way for her friend and pageant roommate, Hay, who mere seconds ago was Miss Kemah but is now the new Miss Texas Teen USA. Daniella Rodriguez, pageant host and reigning Miss Texas USA, presents Hay with the traditional accoutrements: a bouquet of yellow roses the size of a small tree, the queen sash, and the sparkling crown.

As Hay takes her first march down the runway with her new title, she stops to thank the judges, give her Aunt Kelly a quick hug and, finally, have a tender moment with an equally striking, long-maned blond—albeit an older one, and male—her pageant interview coach, J.J. Smith of Houston, considered by many the best in the business.

Before she’s whisked away by her handlers, the new Miss Texas Teen USA makes sure to take a photo with Smith. “J.J. teaches you to stay calm and be yourself, to speak from your heart and be truthful—to what you say, and who you are,” Hay says later, flashing a cover-girl smile and sounding casually confident, polished but unrehearsed—a hallmark of Smith’s coaching. “He has taught me to make every person I meet feel special and leave an impact on everyone I meet. Hopefully I did that today.”

Back at the ballroom, as most of the crowd disperses, the pageant industry gossips chatter away about how Hay “totally nailed” her interview. These insiders know that all five finalists today—as well as four of the 17 semifinalists—are Smith’s pupils. They cast knowing glances at the figure in a houndstooth jacket and dramatically draped red scarf, but he doesn’t appear to notice. Having helped yet another princess ascend to the crown, Smith is off to hold court.

As he moves through the sprawling hotel thronged with physically flawless young women, all eyes stay fixed on Smith—and, it must be said, his hair. Smartly trimmed bangs feather perfectly toward his eyebrows, while shimmering blond, cascading locks drape his shoulders. It’s a hairstyle a ’70s country-western star would have, a fact not lost on Smith. “I was a rhinestone cowboy before Glen Campbell,” he winks, always quick with a one-liner. His dramatic blue-gray eyes leap from beneath his bangs, while his meticulously manicured mustache completes the look.

Hopeful parents stop him, pleading with him to take on their daughters as clients. “Everyone told me to come find you, that you’re the best,” says Ana Reyes, a young mother from Uvalde whose daughter, Amaris, is here competing for the first time. Smith holds an impromptu interview session with Amaris. “You’re exactly where you need to be today,” he tells her, jumping into networking mode, rattling off pageant contact names and phone numbers to her thrilled mom.

In the hotel lobby, he runs into Rodriguez, last year’s queen, and her mom, Martha, and the group talks a little shop about the event. Martha says it was obvious to her who had worked with Smith—and who hadn’t. She also says Daniella became a different person after his coaching. “He is absolutely the best,” she says. “He taught her to make eye contact and to be open with people. She’s more outgoing, and she seeks out contact now. She only wants to work with Mister J.J.”

Martha takes hold of Smith’s arm. “We need you,” she says. “We have to win Miss USA. She really wants that crown. We can’t do it without you.”

It’s hard to imagine Smith—a man who punctuates his text messages with pageant-themed emojis—as “a typical suburban kid from the countrified area of Dickinson, Texas,” yet that’s how he describes himself. In grade school, he excelled at sports, although he does recall certain moments that were trying for his tough-as-nails former Marine father.

“I remember he was showing me his shiny, brand-new car and its engine, explaining all the parts,” says Smith of his dad’s attempts to butch him up. But Smith was distracted by his friend across the street, who happened to be showing off her baton skills. “I was like, ‘Dad, that’s neat, but Jennifer’s twirling. Twirling!’” There was one arena where the whole family bonded with ease, however, and that was in front of the TV watching beauty pageants, something everyone enjoyed. “We would all sit around and try to pick a winner,” says Smith.

And little J.J., it turned out, had an uncanny ability to pick them. “My family was mystified. I’d call them, and they’d win—every time,” he says. “It became a contest of trying to out-predict J.J.” Over the years, as other kids collected baseball cards and memorized stats, Smith utilized what he calls his “photographic memory” to track beauty-contestant wins and losses to predict wins. “It was an innate ability that never left,” he says.

In 1989, he attended his first Miss Texas pageant. As he sat in the audience, Smith recalls, a little voice told him he “would be part of this world. My life changed that night. I found my destiny. From that point on, I started pursuing it.” He began writing a trivia column for the now-defunct Tiara magazine. When the publication folded, Smith was hired by Pageantry, which he says is “the bible of the pageant industry. It was like writing for a small-town paper and then being picked up by the New York Times.”

Jjs critique2 psa8kq

Image: Brian Goldman

Soon Smith became a featured columnist and started traveling the world, covering and judging hundreds of international pageants. He quickly learned that in an arena where every woman is physically stunning, the interview is what makes a contestant stand out. “I got a sense of what worked and what didn’t,” he says, “which answers hit it out of the ballpark and which fell flat, and what judges look for in their winners.”

In the ’90s, Smith approached “a few girls who had potential” and took them on as clients. He’d go on to coach dozens of contestants on a word-of-mouth, consultant basis before, 10 years ago, officially launching his company, WinnerViews, with the tagline “winning interviews from a judge’s perspective.”

From the word go, the business produced “a string of winners,” Smith says, “and a winning streak that has never ended.” The walls of Smith’s Bellaire office—located inside his pageant gown shop, Think Twice Fashions—are wallpapered with photos of his local, state, national and international titleholders; his clients include two of the three most recent Miss Texas Teens USA and the current reigning Miss International, Miss Galaxy and Ms. Earth.

Smith has mentored a Miss Universe, Chelsi Smith, and coached a Miss USA, Kandace Krueger. He has helped hundreds of girls achieve crowns or runner-up roles in more than 50 pageant systems; his website testimonials read like an MVP list of the pageant world. For him, it all goes back to his mantra: “Win the interview, win the pageant.”

There are hundreds of pageant competitions in the United States, varying widely in size and scope, which form a complex web of affiliations and hierarchies. They’re tailored for everyone from toddlers to married adults, with some even targeting specific ethnicities and body types. Katy Perry, Demi Lovato, Britney Spears, Eva Longoria, Halle Berry, Michelle Pfeiffer, Oprah Winfrey and even Sarah Palin were all once pageant contestants and winners.

In this world, Miss America and Miss USA reign supreme. The former is a scholarship pageant, while the latter is a traditional beauty pageant, whose winner goes on to compete for the title of Miss Universe. “There’s a saying in the pageant community that Miss America is the girl next door,” says Smith, “and Miss USA is the girl you wish lived next door.”

Texas is a powerhouse in the pageant scene, boasting nine Miss USA winners, far more than any other state. “We rarely miss,” says Smith, who estimates he’s affiliated with nearly 100 pageants. “When Miss Texas walks in the room, she’s a standout. She sets the bar. And it’s understood that as a pageant contestant, if you can beat Miss Texas, you’re a contender for the title.”

The Texan advantage, says Smith, can be partially attributed to geography and demographics. “We’re an enormous state with everything to choose from: Asian, black, biracial, Hispanic, blue-eyed blonde,” he explains. “There’s not a look, just really, really physically beautiful and appealing to a wide audience.” But there’s more to it than that. “I simply think Texas girls try for it,” Smith says. “We put these girls on a pedestal, and they get a lot of respect and adoration. They, in turn, go out and truly compete. They’re not just happy to be there; they want to win.”

Chelsi Smith, from Deer Park, Texas, has that can-do Lone Star State spirit in spades. In July 1994, she entered the Miss Texas pageant, won, and within months had claimed the Miss USA title. The very next year, she became Miss Universe. “I was just little ol’ Chelsi Smith from Deer Park,” recalls Smith, who now lives in LA, “but I was a firecracker. People didn’t know how to deal with that. I would get really frustrated, but J.J. would tell me to rise above, keep my Southern etiquette, and remember who I am.”

The Miss Universe role was a challenging one. “I would get off a plane from Japan—jetlagged, exhausted—and I’d call J.J., and he’d say, ‘Baby do you need some soup?’” she recounts. “Sometimes, I just needed to hear his voice. I didn’t need interview sessions as much as I needed his pep talks.”

Twenty years and countless winning pupils haven’t diminished J.J.’s pride in Chelsi. “It’s incredible to think a young, aspiring girl from Anywhereville, USA, can go from local titleholder, then to state holder, then national titleholder and ultimately international titleholder,” he says. “Chelsi went from being known only by friends and family to having her name written in pageantry history books and being known and adored by millions worldwide—simply because she thought she could.”

For her part, the former Miss Universe says her mentor “hasn’t changed a stitch since I’ve known him. The ‘precious’ and ‘honey’ and ‘baby doll,’ the exaggeration, the Southern belle shtick—that’s exactly who he’s been since the giddy-up. He just wants these young girls to go up there and feel beautiful and intelligent, and hopefully come home with the crown—and for him to look pretty while she’s doing it.” Hearing this, the pageant coach chuckles. “My girls almost always win,” he says, “but I always look fabulous.”

It’s a sunny Tuesday afternoon, and Madison Minter—Miss Galveston County—has shown up ready to work in a pink, fitted floral dress. Sitting in a chair in J.J. Smith’s storefront Bellaire office, she flips through her thick pageant notepad, skimming the topics she plans to touch on. Smith is in full business mode, the warm chattiness of a few moments ago all but gone as he prepares her for what can be a harrowing process.

At pageants, contestants sit at tables with judges for two-and-a-half minutes, then switch to another table and judge and do it again, as the other aspirants look on. It’s an important part of the competition: Smith explains that judges will often earmark contestants as winners during preliminary rounds, simply for their likability and relatability.

Sitting across from Minter, Smith is now immersed in the role of unfamiliar, detached pageant judge. “So Miss Galveston,” he begins, “you say your happiest moment was seeing the smiles on the faces of the children at Shriner’s Hospital. Tell me about that.” Minter fires off a perfectly executed, feel-good answer, detailing how her work with young burn and trauma victims gives her strength and inspires her, all punctuated by a warm smile. “Perfect!” Smith exclaims, adding some light applause.

Smith next asks Minter what she feels is the biggest challenge facing this current generation, and as she pieces together a response about social media, she trails off. “You lost me,” the coach says bluntly. “Where’s Madison? I lost her.” He redirects her to focus on her own online habits. “Tell them about Madison,” he says. “That’s who they want to meet.”

Frustrated by the flub but eminently coachable, Minter quickly regroups. “I use social media—Facebook, Twitter—and I’m concerned when I see wrong information there, because kids use that to form their opinions, especially about politics. As a Miss Texas Teen, I would be very careful about what I post.”

Smith is delighted, proud that she displayed the savvy to sell herself as a titleholder. “With your answer, you’ve shown me, as a judge, that I can count on you to be a responsible ambassador as Miss Texas Teen.”

As the afternoon goes on, Smith sometimes sounds more like a political consultant than a pageant coach. “Don’t say, ‘I think,’” he says. “It really inspires confidence when you say, ‘I believe.’” It’s an a-ha moment: Minter lights up and nails each new response, making a case for who she’d like to see on the $10 bill—Audrey Hepburn—and discussing her goal of becoming a Texans cheerleader. With each answer, she sounds more and more like the pageant winners seen on television.

“I always tell my girls to not think of it as an interview,” says Smith. “I tell them to think of it as, ‘I’m gonna have a conversation with someone I’ve never met before.’” Minter nods in agreement. “That advice is so helpful when you’re meeting all these judges for the first time,” she says. “That’s where they choose who they want to win, because they’re looking for someone genuine.”

Smith thinks his tough-but-gentle coaching and hands-on approach create a “cool uncle” vibe that makes him both relatable and a respected authority figure. Some girls, he says, catch on with 10 sessions, while others need more intensive training for diction, eye contact, and even how to properly walk in and out of their interviews. “I’ve had girls who’ve been in pageants for years who’ve needed a competitive edge come to me,” he says, “and in a few sessions, they’ve turned around and won.”

His pupils respond to his irreverence and campy humor. “We’re not exactly saving lives here,” he says, “but we’re making lives better. I always teach my girls to learn to laugh at themselves. If you take this too seriously, you’re not going to have any fun.”

0116 feature jjsmith pageant story cover felc4k

Image: Brian Goldman

At the bustling Hilton hotel bar late on the day of the Miss Texas Teen USA Pageant, Smith orders a vodka and water, reaches into his sport coat and retrieves a packet of Crystal Light, which he then discreetly pours into his drink. As his signature cocktail turns bright pink, his eyes begin to redden. Smith has been chatting with a steady stream of pageant staffers and regulars all night, many of whom he’s known for years and helped win titles. Alone now, he allows himself a moment to marvel at Karlie Hay’s success and process his emotions.

“She hasn’t had the easiest life, you know,” he says. “But she never missed an appointment, and every week I saw her progress, especially in her stage poise. Before the show, I told her, ‘You’re ready.’ I knew she was.” The moment is bittersweet, though, as he’s also thinking of first runner-up Thekla McCarty. “I invest myself in the girls I coach,” he explains. “Tomorrow Karlie is going to begin a year that will change her life forever. And tomorrow, Thekla will wake up and be who she is for the rest of her life, but tremendous opportunities will follow.”

They’ll also follow for Smith himself, although it’s clear that’s not why he does what he does. “I dearly, dearly love these girls—all my girls,” he says, tears swelling. “They’re my eyes and ears on this generation. They keep me young. I will never grow old. I may age, but I’ll never grow old.”

Could it be that this bond with his girls is so intense because there’s a starry-eyed pageant girl in Smith himself, ready to sashay down the runway and have her glorious golden mane adorned with the shimmering Miss Universe crown?

“Oh, yes!” Beaming at the suggestion, he leans in confides: “But... She keeps growing a mustache.”

A pageant impresario’s 10 tips to make you a winner in 2016

All of J.J. Smith’s clients say the same thing: not only has he helped them win pageants, but he’s helped them win at life. If you’re looking for a way to jumpstart your new year, Smith—pageant coach, aesthete and self-described “pit bull in the form of a poodle”—offers these 10 simple rules for a more fabulous you.

1. Don't stay home. Take a disco nap!

“Don’t cancel those evening plans or convince yourself you’re tired. Get a quick disco nap in, then go out with the idea that you’re the best-looking person in the room. Tell yourself, ‘No one’s gonna have more fun than me tonight!’ Remember: You never know who you may have missed staying home in your robe.”

2. The most important person is the person right in front of you.

“We tend to think ahead, but it’s important to be present. What may be a nonchalant, lighthearted conversation could actually be interpreted as meaningful to someone else. You’d be surprised how often people remember these ‘little’ conversations.”

3. Choose a new theme song every year.

“Pick whatever song is meaningful for you on January 1, the single song that matters to you the most. It could be a random album track or a brand-new single. Later, it will allow you to look back and reflect on how you’ve grown as a person. It helps define the timeline and soundtrack to your life.”

4. Have a firm handshake–not weak, not a vice grip.

“You’re touching another person—put a little conviction into it. Nobody likes to shake hands with a limp dishrag; it doesn’t come across as genuine. Handshakes are something everybody notices.”

5. Straighten up.

“Your parents were completely right when they told you to stand up straight and sit up straight. Some advice never goes out of style. It can literally make you two inches taller.”

6. Being natural, spontaneous and real outweighs being fake, strained and memorized.

“This applies to job interviews, first dates and, really, any life situation. Don’t be afraid to be who you are. If every day you can say, ‘I was completely myself today, and I was genuine to everyone I met,’ you can go through life with a clear conscience. Don’t attempt to be something or someone you’re not. Be a first-class version of yourself, not a second-rate version of someone else.”

7. Refuse negativity and invite positivity.

“Be diligent in refusing negativity (that includes your own thoughts and actions and, sometimes, certain people). Set yourself up for success: if you’re making New Year’s resolutions, make ones that are feasible to keep.”

8. Always look your best.

“It’s about having pride in yourself. Run an iron across your clothes: you don’t want to look like you just came out of a hamper. You may not have been born with movie-star looks, but you can find the hairstyle that looks best for you, which wardrobe choices and colors work, and at least try to look good every day.”

9. Don't be afraid of going out on a limb.

“A friend gave me a leopard jacket last year. I asked, ‘Do you think this is too much?’ Her answer: ‘For you!?’ Be fearless. You’re gonna make mistakes; you may look back at pictures and think, ‘What was I thinking?’ But let yourself off the hook.”

10. Do what makes you happy.

“There are plenty of rules when it comes to being an adult. But there are no rules when it comes to finding what makes you happy. It’s worth it, and you’re worth it.”

Filed under
Show Comments