ROANOKE, Va. (WFXR) — Less than six months after being crowned Miss Virginia 2021 at the Berglund Center in Roanoke, Liberty University graduate Tatum Sheppard packed up her bedazzled sash and headed to Connecticut to compete for a new crown during the 100th anniversary of Miss America.
On Dec. 7, Sheppard traveled to the Mohegan Sun Resort for the Miss America 2022 competition. In addition to preparing for her own individual performances and interviews, the contestants will spend time in rehearsals for production numbers and other choreographed elements of the competition.
In between the more technical parts of the pageant prep, though, the 51 contestants will have plenty of celebratory events throughout in honor of the 100th anniversary of Miss America.
“Obviously I’m excited to get there and see all of my hard work pay off and compete to be Miss America, but this year, in particular, I feel like I’m a part of a historical moment,” said Sheppard.
Sheppard described the idea of competing in Miss America’s 100th anniversary as iconic and surreal, saying that it makes her take her preparations more seriously because she wants to see the organization thrive for another 100 years.
Before leaving for Connecticut, Sheppard says she spent the most time working on her interview skills by reading up on current events and talking about her social impact initiative, “Mentoring Matters,” and her preparations to assume the job of Miss America. Through all that practice, she believes her interview skills will be her biggest strength for the competition.
“Our private interview is a big chunk of our score, and it’s important that the judges get to know who we are, you know, how we’ll be on the job, how we’ll be able to talk to people, what we stand for, what we want to do as Miss America,” explained Sheppard.
The Miss America competition has not been held since 2019 due to the coronavirus pandemic. As a result of that gap, Miss America 2020 Camille Schrier — a Virginia Tech alum who became Miss Virginia before she became Miss America — has held on to her crown for two years.
When asked if she felt any additional pressure to score a double-win for Virginia on the Miss America stage, Sheppard told WFXR News she actually feels more confident because the team that prepared Schrier when she won two years ago is the team providing her with training and advice as she goes after the same crown.
However, being the daughter of Miss Tennessee 1986 and Miss America 1987, Kellye Cash, is a definite source of pressure for Sheppard, she says.
Nonetheless, thanks to her mother, Sheppard has also had countless opportunities throughout her life to see firsthand what it takes to win Miss America and the benefits of having those skills long after passing off the crown and the sash.
“I’ve been able to watch how she handles, you know, navigating relationships and building partnerships with people and public speaking and singing and performing on stage,” Sheppard said. “I mean, being Miss America has affected her her whole life and it still affects her today and has set up opportunities for her.”
Sheppard also shared a piece of practical advice she learned from her mother, something that can apply to any young woman, not just pageant contestants:
“Just stick to my guns and be my authentic self,” said Sheppard. “Don’t try to be who you think the judges want you to be, because a lot of the times, the panelists, they don’t even know what they’re looking for yet. They kind of want you to tell them.”
Sheppard says being herself and feeling comfortable in her own skin has always come naturally to her, which is something her mother instilled in her and will now help her as she competes in Miss America.
While Sheppard was not a lifetime pageant participant, she spent plenty of time cheering on her older sister as she competed in pageants, including several times for the Miss Tennessee organization.
Then, during Sheppard’s junior year of college, she transferred to Liberty University, realized that she needed the scholarship money, and decided to follow her mother’s footsteps.
Sheppard says she first competed in Miss Piedmont Region in 2019 and ended up as fourth runner-up in Miss Virginia that year, winning a $4,000 scholarship. Then, in 2021, she competed again in Miss Virginia — this time as Miss Central Virginia, which came with a $500 scholarship — and received a $20,000 for winning the crown, as well as $500 for winning the overall evening wear category.
Besides winning at least $25,000 in scholarship funds through the various Miss Virginia competitions – which Sheppard told WFXR News allowed her to pursue her passions practically debt-free after graduating from Liberty with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Musical Theatre – she recognized she had what it takes to wear that crown and perform those responsibilities that come along with it.
“[Mom] inspired it, but I did have to come into my own and realize it for myself that this was my destiny,” Sheppard said.
Even though 50 other young women from across the country will be on the same stage with Sheppard, all dreaming of winning that same crown, she hopes anyone watching the competition remembers her as someone who stands for unity, especially through her social impact initiative, “Mentoring Matters.”
“I would like to be remembered as somebody that’s bringing people together, somebody that’s uniting this nation because we’re truly living in such a polarized time, but mentoring is universal,” Sheppard explained. “Everyone can get behind it.”
Back in June, right after winning Miss Virginia 2021, Sheppard spoke with WFXR News’ Hazelmarie Anderson and Colleen Guerry about how eager she was to teach students across the Commonwealth about mentorships, which she practices as a big sister in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.
As Miss Virginia, Sheppard has been able to work with all of Virginia’s Big Brothers Big Sisters programs, as well as the organization’s national leadership.
Therefore, Sheppard hopes that winning Miss America 2022 will allow her to step into the role of being an honorary big sister who provides opportunities for young people across the U.S. to find mentors.
If Sheppard wins Miss America, she says she will be moving out of her Roanoke apartment so the new Miss Virginia 2021 can move into that apartment for the rest of Sheppard’s term. Meanwhile, the newly-crowned Miss America 2022 will spend the next year traveling across the country to spread her message.
“Things will look radically different, especially during the pandemic, it’s not like we’ve been traveling a whole lot, and so I’ve been traveling across the state of Virginia and that’s amazing, but it will be a huge shift to travel the nation, but I’m excited,” Sheppard said. “I think it’s going to be amazing, especially with my work with Big Brothers Big Sisters of America because I sort of already have some plans in place as soon as I win that I want to get started on.”
If Sheppard does not win Miss America, though, she says she will finish out her reign as Miss Virginia, which includes touring elementary schools around the Commonwealth to discuss substance abuse prevention, and then get back into the film and theatre industry. In fact, Sheppard says she was performing professionally in an original theatre production called “CRUSADE: The Musical” in Nashville, Tenn., but she stepped away when she got the full-time job as Miss Virginia.
Sheppard encourages all her supporters throughout the Commonwealth to tune in online at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 16 and cheer her on as she competes for the crown at Miss America 2022. You can also stream the two nights of preliminary competitions on WatchMissAmerica.com at 7 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 12 and Monday, Dec. 13.