Shandi Finnessey — Interview with Miss USA

Circa 2005

When 26-year-old Shandi Finnessey put on the $200,000 diamond and pearl Mikimoto crown to become Miss USA, she also put on the role of ambassador, with an invaluable opportunity to touch the lives of people around the world. The former Miss Missouri has visited the local heroes of New York City’s police and fire departments and traveled overseas to provide a morale boost to troops stationed far from home. She has used her persona to raise funds for charities ranging from the American Cancer Society to Derek Jeter’s Turn 2 Foundation (which helps at-risk kids choose healthier lifestyles). She has spent afternoons reading to elementary school children as well as visiting soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

With a background as a professional model, Shandi has graced runways, billboards, print media and television commercials. In her spare time she paints, knits, plays both the violin and piano masterfully, and practices yoga and meditation. She has even gone bungee jumping to conquer her fear of heights. An honors graduate from Lindenwood University in Missouri, Shandi completed her Bachelor of Science in psychology in just three and a half years. In 2002 she authored a children’s book, The Furrtails, which helps children appreciate individuality and understand their peers who have disabilities.

Recently Shandi sat down with ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper to discuss her year as Miss USA; the growing pains she endured to get there; and her role as national spokesperson for breast and ovarian cancer education, research and legislation (the official causes of the Miss USA pageant).

Chet Cooper: I heard you received the Angel Award.

Shandi Finnessey: Yes. It’s a local award in Florissant, Missouri. Each year they find someone who is an angel in the community and who has helped to bring the community together.

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CC: Well, congratulations.

SF: Another award I received recently that I am very proud of is the Ryan Brems Award, which had to do with the inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities. I didn’t learn the full story behind the award until I went to accept it. Ryan Brems was a young boy who had very severe mental and physical disabilities. He could not walk or talk, but he was mainstreamed into a typical classroom. Because of complications of his conditions, he ended up passing away. It wasn’t until the funeral that the parents of his classmates realized that he had disabilities. Their children would come home and talk about their friend Ryan, and what they did that day in school with their friend Ryan. The other children never felt it necessary to say that he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t talk or that he had a disability. They just saw him as a friend. Ever since he passed away, an award has been given to a person who has done a lot toward inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities. I was extremely honored to receive the award.

CC: What work have you done to further inclusion?

SF: I’ve done many things, such as job placement and mentoring. I wrote a children’s book entitled The Furrtails, which was published three years ago. The book talks about how we all have strengths and we all have weaknesses. These strengths and weaknesses don’t make one person better than another; they just make people unique and different. I’ve been doing a lot with the book with Special Olympics, the National Down Syndrome Convention, arenas like that. I also go into grade schools to share my book with students. I have been trying to raise awareness because I think the unknown is what scares people so much. They don’t know how they should interact with someone with a disability—someone who is different from them.

CC: Tell me more about your book.

SF: It’s about a family of rabbits called the Furrtails, and throughout the course of the book, there’s two…

CC: The Furrtails? Was it published by Playboy?

SF: (laughs) Yeah…the fur tails. (laughs) Throughout the course of the book, there are two rabbits, Sammy and Robby. Sammy, the older of the two, is not as quick and wise and smart as the younger rabbit. The younger, Robby, doesn’t understand. He’s thinking, “You’re my older brother. You should be able to do the same things I do.”

In the story, Sammy winds up in a trap on Mr. Villman’s farm, and all of the rabbits have to use their special traits and skills to free Sammy from the trap. In the end, if even one of the rabbits, including Sammy, had not used his or her special skill, Sammy would not have been freed. After the story I help the students identify one thing they are really good at. They say everything from skateboarding to math…

CC: …to trapping rabbits?

SF: (laughs) Kids say some pretty cute things. Once we’ve talked about their strengths, I ask the kids, “What’s one thing that maybe you’re not so good at or that you need help with?” It takes them a while to start thinking, but then they start flowing with ideas. I hear some really interesting stories from the kids—one talked about his grandmother who used a wheelchair, and how he noticed she was treated differently and how that hurt him. It gets the kids to really recognize situations they’ve been in where people have been segregated.

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CC: You wrote your undergraduate paper on androgyny [having both masculine and feminine characteristics]. What led you to that subject?

SF: I had the hypothesis that the more feminine in appearance a woman is, the more likely she is to receive assistance or help. I formulated this hypothesis because I looked much different in high school from how you see me now. I had a mullet, tinted glasses, acne and braces, and I was teased a lot. The teasing was so severe that I ended up transferring from a public school to a private high school.

CC: You could have changed the mullet, but the other things…

SF: (laughs) I did have to wait for the mullet to grow out, and that takes a little time!

CC: You mean you actually transferred because the school was so tough socially for you?

SF: It was difficult to focus on my studies. When you go to school and you worry about who is going to tease you and who is going to try to beat you up and things like that, it becomes difficult to focus. It was my decision; I went to my parents and said, “I’m not getting the education that I think I need. I need to move into a smaller school.” I actually moved to an all-girls school.

CC: A mullet-friendly school? SF: (laughs) Yes, although I was teased there too. Being around the same people and seeing how I am treated so differently now—just because the contacts went in, the hair grew out, I put some Retin-A on and the braces came off—that was how I came up with the hypothesis that the more feminine in appearance a woman is, the more likely she is to receive assistance. I did a study four or five years back to test it, and when the results proved significant it was published in the SEPA Journal.

Left and Center Shandi reacts to being crowned Miss USA. Right Competing for the title of Miss Universe, Shandi represented the USA in the National Costume Show.
Left and Center Shandi reacts to being crowned Miss USA. Right Competing for the title of Miss Universe, Shandi represented the USA in the National Costume Show.

CC: How did you test your hypothesis?

SF: We took the same group of people and had them in three conditions: extremely feminine, extremely masculine and then androgynous. It was the exact same person, just different role-playing. The performers didn’t just dress differently, but also changed a few of their mannerisms. The difference in how they were treated was so drastic. We’ve always heard that people tend to judge a book by its cover, but my study was able to demonstrate it, and to [zero in on androgynous appearance as a factor, because using the same subjects eliminated other causes.]

CC: It would be interesting to replicate the study, but focus on the progression of age to see where the shift in attitudes begins to occur. Young children, as with Ryan Brems, often don’t see the differences, but at some point society begins to instill that negative awareness of being different.

SF: That’s a good point—that’s why I think it’s important to get the exposure out there to children. If they’re exposed to different situations, different people and different environments, then I think they’re more accepting in the long run. But if you keep them secluded in their own sheltered worlds, and then one day they are in an environment where they’re around something that is different from them, they’re not going to know how to respond or react. That’s how I developed this passion.

During my undergraduate studies I was required to do an internship. They had a whole list of different places I could choose from, but…

CC: Wasn’t ABILITY listed?

SF: No… (laughing) Only one of the places paid any kind of stipend, and I was thinking, “If I’m working thirty hours a week, I’m getting paid.” My internship was with an assisted living program working with people with mental retardation and Down syndrome. I came into the situation thinking, “This will be easy, I’m getting paid. It’s like any other job.” Never did I imagine that I’d be uncomfortable.

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CC: Why were you uncomfortable?

SF: When I first met a young woman I would be working with for the year, Amy, who was legally blind and had mild mental retardation, I put my hand out to shake hers and she just looked at me. I realized, “Wow. I’m in an uncomfortable situation. I’ve never been here before.” Throughout the course of the year, we became good friends. I helped her begin her own business recycling cans. She was so proud of herself! But what I gained from her was huge. I saw her love of life. She was free of envy and jealousy, and she was so true to her emotions.

CC: What other projects or events did you work on during your internship?

SF: I started developing little socializing events such as Halloween parties and things like that. I would bring Amy and a number of other people with intellectual disabilities, and then see how other people—like my friends—who had never been in an environment with someone with a mental disability were taken aback and didn’t know how they should act. I realized that whenever we go outside of the box that we know, we get scared and don’t know how we should behave. So if we start at a young age with exposure, we can change that.

CC: You realize that’s what we’re doing right now, and it’s one of the purposes of ABILITY Magazine.

SF: Yes.

CC: How did you choose the Miss USA competition as opposed to Miss America?

SF: I competed in Miss America in 2002 and won the evening gown competition, but that was it. I felt as though there was more inside of me that I wanted to give back, and that I had missed out on that in some way. On a whim I went and tried the Miss USA competition, and obviously ended up doing very well. There is a little saying that Miss America is the girl next door and Miss USA is the girl you want next door! Both: (laughter)

CC: There’s a lot of responsibility and work that comes with the title. I don’t know if most people realize how much you do.

SF: This job can weigh on someone mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Two weeks ago I was in D.C. visiting Walter Reed and Bethesda, two medical hospitals that treat our servicemen and women who come back from Iraq and Afghanistan, and I was sitting there holding the hands of soldiers who, just days before, had been shot in the face, had became tripleamputees or had been otherwise very severely wounded. It was very, very tough. We talked about their experiences and prayed together, and then I had to leave the hospital to attend a gala that evening.

CC: That juxtaposition of such dramatically different experiences must have been very difficult.

SF: It was. I like not only to leave a little bit of myself everywhere I go, but I try to take a little bit of everyone else with me. It’s very difficult to go from one severe emotion into another.

CC: What happens when this whirlwind of traveling, meetings, appearances and visits stops?

SF: A lot of girls—as long as they feel that they gave it their all during the year—leave with a sense of accomplishment, ready to move on to the next chapter in their lives. For the girls who can’t get over that moment and think, “I am forever Miss USA,” then I think they leave almost with a bit of regret. I’m trying to get as much out of it as I possibly can; then, hopefully, for my next step, I would like to do something in television like hosting a television show.

CC: Any particular focus you’re interested in pursuing?

SF: I have to see what opportunities are out there and what I fit into. Ideally, I would love to use my counseling degree on television in some way, similar to Dr. Phil, but a little more glamorized. (laughs)

CC: You do look a lot like Dr. Phil. But I’m sure you’ve heard that before.

SF: (laughs) You know, I have! I think it’s the hair…I’m getting a little bit of a receding hairline. Both: (laughter)

CC: Have you ever considered doing a reality show?

SF: I am such a huge reality show fan. Huge! I seriously TiVo every single reality show. Whenever people come to my house they always say I watch the worst TV, which I probably do. But I’m a huge fan of reality television.

Would I ever do it? I actually toyed with the idea of going on The Bachelorette, just because who wouldn’t want to be around 30 men who were catering to your every need while you lived in a fabulous place for a month with no job? But doing something like that limits you, I think, because you then have a title. It puts you inside of a box and you carry with you the image of that reality show.

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CC: But you have a title now.

SF: Yes, you’re right. But it’s different. I guess I have to see what opportunities are there.

CC: You’re currently working on your master’s degree, is that correct?

SF: I was in the middle of my master’s degree in counseling when I left for the Miss USA pageant. I hope to finish my master’s and then get my doctorate.

CC: In what area would you pursue a doctorate?

SF: Counseling. But I think I will take a year or two before continuing my education to see what possibilities are out there in television. I’m still young, I have no commitments and no serious relationship, so I might just give it a year or two out here in L.A. and see if something happens. If not, I’ll redefine my goals and start again.

CC: Where are you currently living?

SF: I live in New York now. I’m from Missouri, but after you win the pageant you move to New York and live with two roommates, Miss Teen USA and Miss Universe.

Center Shandi talks to ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper.
Center Shandi talks to ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper.

CC: We interviewed Miss Universe two years ago, Justine Pasek.

SF: I didn’t know that. She’s amazing.

CC: At the time she was planning on pursuing a degree in biology. She really wanted to work with the environment down in Panama.

SF: She was just in New York a couple of weeks ago. She’s still as beautiful as ever.

CC: You’d think after a year she’d get old and ugly.

SF: (laughs) Exactly! The crown would fade….

CC: You’ve had the opportunity to meet a number of interesting people. What do you think of Donald Trump, for example?

SF: He’s got a great sense of humor, which I never knew. I also never realized he’s so tall, six-foot-four. I think.

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CC: He doesn’t get lost in a crowd.

SF: Absolutely not! (laughs) It may be the hair that helps him stand out, though. He’s actually a really good, nice, humble, funny person. I really enjoy being around him.

CC: It’s amazing how little you can tell about a person from what you see on TV.

SF: That’s true. In the same way, I was surprised that the person I have been most enamored of this year is Wayne Newton. I would never have imagined that. When I was touring with the USO in Korea, he was there. He is an amazing, giving performer, by far my favorite person to work with so far.

CC: What other issues are you working to raise awareness about?

SF: I have become a national spokesperson for breast and ovarian cancer. I do a lot with legislation, early detection and education. Truly, early detection saves lives. Breast cancer affects one in eight women. The sooner you find out, the better chance you have of survival.

CC: John Edwards’ wife was recently diagnosed with breast cancer.

Left to Right Shandi visiting with servicemen while on a USO tour in Seoul, Korea; while in Equador for the Miss Universe competition, Shandi took a moment to greet Captain Michael Charle
Left to Right Shandi visiting with servicemen while on a USO tour in Seoul, Korea; while in Equador for the Miss Universe competition, Shandi took a moment to greet Captain Michael Charle

SF: I heard. Obviously, that’s very sad and devastating for him and his family. However, because of their position and being touched by breast cancer, they are also able to influence many people. [Mrs. Edwards discovered her breast lump during a breast self-exam], but so many people don’t even know how to perform a self-exam. I think we just need to get the message out there about the importance of early detection and the tools to use. I’m so fortunate, because no significant woman in my life has been affected by breast cancer. Prior to becoming Miss USA, I didn’t even know how to perform a selfexam. Now that I have this title, I am also the national spokeswoman for breast and ovarian Cancer, so I’ve become educated myself.

Ovarian cancer is so traumatic right now because there’s no simple screening process, and it’s often not detected until its fourth stage, which is terminal. Currently we have many more questions than we do answers.

CC: Are you feeling more empowered by the knowledge you’re gaining?

SF: I’m feeling more aware about my body and more educated. Absolutely.

CC: You mentioned meeting Wayne Newton while visiting soldiers with the USO. Are you going to continue working with the USO?

SF: Yes, I do a lot with them. My father is a Vietnam vet; he fought as a Marine. Because of my father and what he went through, I’ve always been passionate toward our soldiers. Now, with the state that our country is in and everything that is going on in Iraq, I feel that as Miss USA I am an ambassador and I need to keep our focus on our soldiers. I want to make sure we don’t repeat the history of Vietnam.

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That war was so traumatic because we lost appreciation for our soldiers. Soldiers coming out of World War II had so much acknowledgment. They came home to parades in the streets. Then, all of the sudden, all these soldiers were coming home from Vietnam and being spat upon, screamed at, ridiculed and really degraded. I think we need to let them know they’re appreciated.

CC: What are you doing to that effect?

SF: I’ve been doing a lot of touring with the USO and speaking with the soldiers. It’s such an irony, because they are so grateful for my being there, and I’m thinking, “You’re grateful that I’m here?” We are so fortunate just to be Americans, to wake up in a country where we have the freedoms that we do—and it’s because of each of those soldiers who goes out there to fight for what we believe in.

CC: Will you be returning to Walter Reed?

SF: Oh, absolutely. I’m going back within a month. Some of the soldiers I met the first time I was there will be there for a few months. I’ll be able to see them again and let them know, “Hey, I’m coming back to see you. It wasn’t a one-time thing.”

Miss USA 2005 is going to be held in Baltimore, Maryland, and I’m actually trying to schedule an afternoon where all the girls go to the hospital and break up into little groups. Not only is there the Intensive Care Unit, where amputees and soldiers with gunshot wounds are being cared for, but there are also children. There are so many kids in chemotherapy. When they see a beauty queen, they’re just in awe; it brightens their day so much. I’m trying to work it out so that the fifty-one contestants can go visit together.

CC: That’s a great idea.

SF: Thanks. I think that by knowing I’m leaving so many footprints and having an impact on so many people, when the year is over, I’ll feel as though I’ve done a good job.

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