You heard it here first: Laura Marano is joining the judges’ panel at this year’s Miss America competition, which will be held at Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall and will be broadcast live on Sunday, Sept. 11, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.
The former Austin & Ally star will be in good company alongside fellow judges entrepreneur Mark Cuban, VH1 star Sara Foster, singer-songwriter Cole Swindell, former Miss America Sharlene Wells Hawkes, and — as of today’s news —Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas.
Yahoo Style caught up with Marano to get the scoop on why she’s excited to get involved with the pageant, what she’ll be looking for from contestants, her advice to Douglas and others on handling social media bullies, and what fans can expect from her upcoming album and clothing line.
Yahoo Style: What made you want to get involved with the Miss America pageant?
Laura Marano: I am so excited. You have no idea. When I found out a month ago, I was freaking out. I’m going to be honest. Miss Congeniality is one of my favorite movies. Ever since watching it, I’ve been more and more obsessed with beauty pageants because of the aspect that it’s not just a beauty pageant. It’s more about the overall character of these awesome ladies. What I love about it is that idea of giving back and how these ladies are talking about social platforms that are important to them and important to the rest of us.
How are you preparing? Have you been watching old pageants? Or rewatching Miss Congeniality?
It’s an awesome panel of judges this year. It’s a very diverse group from all walks of life. For me, how I’m preparing — of course, I’m watching Miss Congeniality every day, because what else are you supposed to do but watch Sandra Bullock?
You’ll be asked to evaluate the contestants’ performances based on the following categories: Lifestyle and Fitness in Swimwear, Evening Wear, Talent, Interview, and Onstage Questions. But what will you personally be looking for in a winner?
I’m going to be looking for a couple things. One: passion. Passion about the platforms that the girls are interested in and talking about. I want to see that they’re really passionate about it and why are they passionate about it. Second of all, I think eloquence is an important thing when you’re talking about important things. It’s important to be able to communicate with the mass majority.
What advice do you have for the contestants?
Keep in mind, I haven’t been a part of pageants before, so I feel there are definitely things I’m going to be learning as well as being a judge. But the one thing I can speak about is talking about things you care about to people who may or may not be listening and how you get them to listen. Any advice I would give them is to be short, concise, and meaningful with anything you say. It’s very easy to ramble. It’s very easy to not make a clear point sometimes. The best thing is to know what you’re going to say and find a meaningful way of saying it.
Will you get a chance to meet any of the contestants ahead of time?
I don’t know actually. I’m hoping I can meet them beforehand, because I really want to. I’m crossing my fingers I’ll get to meet them.
What are your thoughts on Erin O’Flaherty, the first openly gay Miss America contestant?
It’s awesome. Listen, Miss America and any of these competitions are about diversity and are about showing the true look of what America is about. America is all about diversity. I think it’s absolutely awesome that we’re going to have our first openly gay Miss America contestant.
How do your peers view pageants? Are they considered empowering?
I think it’s how each individual pageant handles themselves. For me, there are some pageants out there that are really empowering to women and are really empowering to my generation. My generation is the social media generation. We’re the generation that loves bringing awareness to so many different awesome things. That’s a really cool aspect of pageants — that they can bring awareness to things that you might not know about. I do think that sometimes, depending on the pageant, there’s been the connotation of being “just a beauty contest.” The way Miss America handles it is awesome. It’s more about the different things the girls are saying and talking about that makes it more about their leadership skills and their character. That’s when it becomes more empowering. It’s not just, “Look how they look in a bathing suit,” which sometimes, hey, if you look good in a bathing suit, you should flaunt it too. That’s not a problem either.
What are your thoughts on the fact that Miss Teen USA banned the bikini for athleisure?
I fully supported that move. I have to say, again, I’m a California beach girl, so I love me some bathing suits, but I think, especially for teens, I feel like it can definitely be a bit uncomfortable. It does become more about the physique and look instead of the actual deeper meaning of anything.
You were talking earlier about the importance of having a platform. What’s important to you?
UNICEF is the No. 1 organization for helping children. Children have nothing to do with the state of the world right now. I love working with UNICEF, because it doesn’t matter what’s happening with the adults who are choosing their fate — it’s about the children and having every child have as much of an equal opportunity as possible. I’ve also been working with the Starkey Foundation, which provides hearing aids for people in Third World countries. My sister is on a show called “Switched at Birth,” which is centered around deaf culture, so we became aware of that foundation through that. It’s so incredible.
Chris Harrison is hosting the show alongside Sage Steele. Do you watch The Bachelor or Bachelorette?
Who doesn’t?! Let’s be honest! I think everyone in my generation and generations above me are obsessed. [Chris is] a haven for most people’s reality shows. It’s really cool he’s been hosting Miss America for so many years. It’s cool to be a part of the same tradition. I’m excited to meet him.
You’re judging alongside Gabby Douglas. Have you two met before? Did you watch her compete at the Olympics?
I know! Oh, my gosh! I’m so excited! I actually performed this year at the San Jose gymnastic trials when they decided who was going to go to the Olympics. So I got to see Gabby and all of the amazing women in person doing their thing. I’m so excited. Of course, I’m watching the Olympics right now and seeing them kill it. I’m freaking out.
Did you actually get to meet that day?
We were definitely both pretty focused. We did not get to meet. I’m going to be such a fangirl when I meet her. I’m going to have to tone it down a little bit. I’m like, “I can’t meet her.” She’s literally doing crazy tricks. All of her focus is on that. It’s like, “Stop Laura. Calm down.”
Were you surprised by the social media reaction to Gabby during her time at the Olympics. You have nearly 2 million followers yourself on Twitter. How do you handle social media bullies?
With social media, it’s so easy to get lost in the different things people are saying. That’s both ways. It’s easy to get lost in the positive things that they’re saying and the negative. When I look at my feed, I see, like, two extremes usually. I see, “Oh, my gosh, Laura. You’re a goddess. You’re perfect,” and then I also see, “Oh, my God, Laura. Kill yourself. You’re horrible. You’re ugly.” It’s very easy to have a distorted view of yourself, because you get so many different comments. For me, it’s all about taking a break from it once in a while. I do love it and I enjoy talking to my fans. I mean, there are so many awesome things about social media, but there are also times when I need to step back and remember that there’s a whole other world outside — not just social media, but outside my entertainment industry bubble.
Switching gears a bit… What do you miss most about shooting Austin & Ally?
We started Season 4 knowing it was our last season. We were all comparing it to senior year of high school. You know at the end that you’re graduating, so you don’t take anything for granted. You live in the moment with everybody around. Season 4 was awesome. In the end, we got pretty sad, but the thing I miss most about the show is the people. You create a second family, a family away from home, and it’s such a weird thing to not be able to see that family anymore. But, of course, we still talk and text each other. We haven’t really gotten together since January because our schedules are all crazy, but these people are definitely going to be my family and friends for life.
(Suddenly the phone cuts out. Was it something we said?! Laura calls us back.)
Sorry. Darn technology. And service…
(It cuts out again. Laura calls back. Again.)
Oh, my gawd. I’m crossing my fingers. This is going to be the one. I’m so sorry. Just to explain: I have a flip phone. It’s usually pretty amazing service, but AT&T is shutting down my service because it’s 2G. It’s a whole situation. Long story short, I’m so sorry.
Are you getting rid of your flip phone?
I did research. I found a flip phone that has 3G, so I just have to go order it online and take it to an AT&T store, figure my life out. It’s going to be fine.
Why are you so attached to your flip phone?
I love it because it flips! And it’s awesome! Speaking of what we were saying earlier about social media, it’s the best thing when I want to disconnect from social media but still want to be able to communicate with people who want to call me or need me for emergencies.
But you can’t get on social media at all through your flip phone. How do you access your social media?
I cheat a little bit. I have a mini iPad that has cellular service.
Anyway, back to what we were discussing. Music seems like a logical followup to your show. And you have a new single out this week. What inspired it?
It’s my second single, coming out August 25. I’m really excited for everyone to hear it. It’s going to be on my debut album that’s coming out in a few months. When I was writing it, I went into the room and wrote it with some lovely people—Justin Trainor, Matt Friedman, Selena Warner. I came into the room that night. We wrote it around 7 p.m. Latest session I’ve ever done. I came in and I was like, “I want to write a celebratory, happy, screw you song.” I wanted to write a song that’s like “screw you for not accepting me for who I am, and I’m going to do me no matter what criticism I get from you.” That’s the hook of the song.
Will there be a music video for it?
Hopefully there will be a music video for it. We haven’t shot it yet. I definitely have a pretty fun idea for it.
What can you tease about your upcoming album? Any collabs in the works?
I do have some fun collaborations. I don’t want to say them quite yet. I’m really excited for this album. I’m being pretty creative with it in terms of … I don’t want to give away too much … but in terms of some fun, structure stuff. The music is all done. The artwork is all done. Everything is done. Now I’m just organizing everything for the packaging. And there’s another little fun surprise that I don’t want to get into too much.
Who would you love to collaborate with musically that you haven’t yet collaborated with?
Pink! For sure! I’m obsessed with all things Pink. She’s a great songwriter. She’s a great performer. She’s a great everything.
What do you enjoy more — music or acting, and why?
That’s a Sophie’s Choice question! Acting is always going to be a part of my life. It’s been a part of my life since I was a kid. But with music, there’s something so personal about it and something so intimate that I love that’s scary. I don’t know. It’s hard. But I think I’d say music.
I understand you’re currently developing your own apparel and accessories brand. What can we expect from it? When will it be in stores?
We’re in the middle of the creative process. Really exciting. Hopefully, we’re going to be in stores next year. It’s for juniors. The design we’re going for is inspired by Stevie Nicks. I absolutely love Stevie Nicks and her style. It’s centered around that.
What’s the design process been like for you?
I’m collaborating with some amazing designers. I’m working with Evey Clothing. They’re supercute and awesome. We’ve had a few meetings and lots and lots of email exchanges of like, “OK. This is what I’m looking for,” and then they’ll send me something. And I’ll say, “Great. But can we have a different bit of stitching on this?” And then I’ll send more of my ideas. It’s been really cool. It’s all fashion. We haven’t done any makeup stuff yet. I’m very antsy to do so. I would love to do makeup, but I haven’t delved into that world yet.
Do you consider your fashion, makeup, and/or your roles based on the fact that you have a really young fan base? How do you feel about being a role model?
You know what? To be quite honest, when I turned 18, I was like, “OK. I’m an adult now. I can do some more exciting things with my makeup.” But, of course, in general, I’m grateful for my younger fan base. I try to watch out for them and think of them, but at the same time, the most important thing I can do is be my authentic, genuine self, and that comes with experimenting with different trends. I definitely made a conscious choice before I was 18 of like, “I don’t have to go there if I’m not comfortable with it.” But when I turned 18, I was like, “Hey, world. Get ready.”
For the latest on the Miss America pageant, you can follow it on Twitter at #MissAmerica.