Jessica in the Pierce County Hearld

May 7, 2009

jessicaSumner girl wins big
In her first-ever pageant, Jessica Furnstahl takes the crown
Avani Nadkarni
Published: May 6th, 2009 09:01 AM

Colleen Carroll
Shari Furnstahl supports her daughter Jessica, who won first place in the Washington State International Girl competition.

Shari Furnstahl is well aware of the stereotypes about child pageants.

“I was a little bit resistant at first,” Furnstahl said when her 9-year old daughter asked to compete in the Washington State International Girl competition. “I had seen what you could call the ‘glitz pageants’.”

Furnstahl and husband decided to look into the contest further. As part of a close-knit family, Furnstahl wanted to make sure competing in the pageant would be the best decision for not only her daughter Jessica, but for her 14-year-old son and 5-year-old twin daughters.

After researching the competition, however, they decided it would be “a good fit for us.” In the Little Miss Division, for girls ages 7 to 9, makeup was eschewed, clothes were conservative and the focus is on the scholarship aspect.

So Jessica Furnstahl competed in her first-ever pageant, held April 17-19 at the SeaTac Marriott Hotel, and to her surprise, won.

“When it got down to me and another girl, we weren’t too sure who would win,” she said, smiling. “But I won.”

The pageant process was grueling, but the Crestwood Elementary third grader said she wasn’t very nervous. The first day of competition, she had an interview, and was asked questions about her favorite movie and what she likes to eat. Although the Furnstahls had no idea what kind of questions would be asked, Furnstahl would practice with her daughter as she drove her to dance class in Auburn.

“She’d ask me what I’d do with $1 million, questions like that, so I could practice,” Jessica Furnstahl said.

For the talent portion of the contest, held on the final day, she decided to sing “The Wizard and I” from the Broadway hit musical “Wicked,” a favorite in the Furnstahl home — Furnstahl and all three of her daughters belt out tunes from the musical as she drives them to classes at Auburn Dance Academy and the family plans to attend the show when it comes to Seattle in the fall. While singing onstage, Jessica Furnstahl wore a dress created for her by grandmother Linda Pressey, who lives in Puyallup.

“I want to be a singer like (country band) Rascal Flatts or Carrie Underwood,” Jessica Furnstahl said. “They’re good singers but they haven’t really done anything bad so (the focus) is on their songs.”

If that career path falls through, she said she wants to be a special education teacher, just like her mother. During Jessica Furnstahl’s spring break, she went with her mother to the Auburn School District middle school where she works and interacted with the special needs students. As her mother tells the story, the young girl’s face lights up; clearly, she enjoyed the experience.

Jessica Furnstahl isn’t sure if this will be her first pageant of several, or her last one. As winner of the state International Girl pageant, she will be heading to Dallas in late July to compete nationally, where, if she wins, she would receive a $5000 scholarship. After that contest, she — and her family — aren’t sure if they’d like to continue.

“I think it’s a great thing, but you have to keep a balance,” her mother said. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with competing as long as she realizes she’s far more important than the banner.”

Jessica Furnstahl agreed.

“She’s not a regular pageant mom,” she said, eliciting laughs from her mother.

It’s clear that her family’s support system is important to the little girl. Although her older brother couldn’t attend the competition, she was furiously texting him throughout. And while she didn’t need a platform in her division, her brother’s childhood medical struggle with a cleft lip has prompted her, and the family, to support Operation Smile. If she does continue with pageantry, she’d like this to be her platform, she said.

For now, however, the Jessica Furnstahl is preparing for the Dallas contest — but not at the expense of her other hobbies. She’s still taking jazz, ballet, tap and hip-hop lessons at her dance school, playing video games and soccer with her big brother and being a regular third grader.

Win or lose in Dallas, Jessica Furnstahl has her own fan club right here in Washington.

“During the competition, the whole time,” she said. “There were these tiny toddlers from the (younger division) that kept following me around!”