Miss Teen RI aims to make mental health issues 'normal'

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Olivia Volpe, who is a senior at Cranston West and had never competed in a pageant before, decided roughly a month ago to enter the Miss Teen Rhode Island 2019 competition held this past weekend, and after unexpectedly taking the prize, which has left her “speechless,” she wants to spread the message that anxiety and mental health issues are normal.

The reason she decided to enter the competition in the first place, she said, was because she’s “always struggled with anxiety,” and she wanted to step out of her “comfort zone” by doing something that would require her to face it head on.

She also had friends from school – and her younger sister Camille, who finished in the top-10 of this year’s competition – who were involved in pageants, though Volpe had never done one before.

The presence of Cranston West at the statewide pageant was strong, as the top three finishers – Volpe, sophomore Sophia Ledoux, and freshman Giana Mesiti – are all Falcons. Volpe said that although she either knew the other girls personally or at least knew of them before the competition, their three-day experience brought her closer not only to the other West students but all of the girls involved.

The three-day experience began with interview day Friday, Volpe said. She thinks that the interview was the most important part of the competition, as it gave her the chance to show the judges who she is, what she is passionate about, and why she was taking part in the pageant.

On Saturday, Volpe said she really had to step outside of her comfort zone because she had to participate in an ensemble dance production with the rest of the contestants, during which she had to dance in heels.

“I’m not someone who’s very sharp and perfect,” she said about learning the dance moves for the show. “I just tried to my little quirky self on stage, I tried to keep it me.”

She said anxiety plagued her at points during the event, which she overcame by trying to be herself in front of the crowd and the judges.

Saturday’s portion of the competition also included the teens walking down the stage in athletic and formal wear. Though most of the competition on stage wasn’t individualized, Volpe said the interview portion on Friday was when the judges got to learn the most about the contestants and make their assessments.

On Sunday, the group follows a similar schedule to Saturday, until the top-10 in the competition were announced and, eventually, the winner was chosen.

In preparation for the event, Volpe met frequently with Kelsey Swanson, a family friend who had won Miss RI in 2017. She said Swanson taught Volpe and her younger sister “how to walk and talk” and how to be more “bouncy and fun” on stage, which helped her stand out. Volpe also said she learned to eat a little healthier, though she “still had her cookies.”

The main challenge Volpe was met with during her first pageant was the anxiety, because she said it would randomly spring up throughout the weekend. But she also said it’s gotten a lot better than it was when she was younger, and now that it’s over she believes the whole ordeal helped her to deal with it better.

She said another challenge she had was trying not to compare herself to anyone else on stage, because she said she’s been keen to do that throughout her life.

When the time finally came to announce the winner, Volpe was left in shock.

“When I won, I completely forgot what to do,” she said. “I started walking off stage and the announcer asked what I was doing. You’re supposed to walk down the runway and talk to the announcer. I was like ‘oh my gosh’ and I went up to him. He told me the spotlight was going to follow me wherever I went.”

She said it still hasn’t “hit her” that she was named the winner and she wasn’t able to even say anything as the announcer was interviewing her, other than “thank you” over and over again.

Volpe said that she will now be competing for Miss Teen USA, which “makes her stomach drop” thinking about it.   In the immediate future, she’ll be meeting with the state’s Miss USA and Miss Teen USA director, Cindy Provost, along with the winner of Miss Rhode Island contest, Nicole Palozzi, to talk about everything.

But her goal now that she has been named Miss Teen Rhode Island isn’t just to win pageants.

“My main goal is to make mental illness not a bad thing,” she said. “To shine light on it. Everyone suffers from something but when people hear the words mental illness they get embarrassed.”

She said she’s taking AP Psychology at West this year and the teacher asked the class how many people suffer from mental illness.

“I knew it was 100 percent before anyone answered,” she said. “It’s really in everyone’s life. I just want people to know it’s okay and normal.”

Volpe wants to go to college and major in psychology, while also pursuing her passion for art, which she said is a unique skill of hers (adding that singing and dancing aren’t). She wants to be an art therapist and work with children, because she thinks it’s “easier to draw than to talk” and to express feelings through artwork.

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