Twelve high school juniors from Loudon County will take the stage virtually Saturday in hopes of being named the winner of this year’s Distinguished Young Women competition.

Contestants each year are judged on scholastics, talent, interview, fitness and self-expression.

“The nice thing about this program, and we always stress, this is not a beauty pageant, it is not, absolutely not,” Kimberly Wilks, DYW judges chairwoman, said. “It’s about looking at the well-rounded girls. The one thing, even if we were having it face to face, that the audience doesn’t know, I don’t know, a lot about their scholastics. That’s really important in this program. We want them to be well-rounded.”

Saturday will mark the first time DYW locally has been held online instead of in person due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The contest was initially scheduled for April 4 at Lenoir City High School.

This year’s competition will be a mixture of pre-recorded performances for fitness and self-expression and live interviews via Zoom with judges Saturday.

Sandy King, DYW chairwoman, has been working with the 12 juniors since January, although they formally met in November.

“Once COVID-19 prohibited from meeting in person, we made videos of all the required materials available to the young ladies,” King said. “We also started using the Zoom format to meet with the girls. During these meetings, we worked on the fitness routine, interview skills, self-expression public speaking skills and to discuss all the constant changes.”

This year’s competition will have its share of challenges.

“We’d really like for them to be able to go one place to do the physical fitness even when doing it digitally, and so we have some girls that are going to do things outside, in their home, and for their interviews Sandy has tried her best to prep for that,” Wilks said. “I’ll look at where they’re at 10 minutes before their scheduled time to make sure the room is clear. We want to make it as professional as we can, but we also understand that the girls are limited as well.”

Wilks said results could be “a few days down because we’ll have to get everything together to see what we can do.”

“We can’t do like we normally do, so what we’re planning to do, and we haven’t set this in stone, we’d thought we’d do some kind of Facebook Live and have the winner from last year and the winner from this year announce all the winners,” she said.

Winners will be named in each category, along with the Sarah B. Brakebill Spirit Award, the overall DYW of Loudon County winner and a first alternate. They will each receive cash scholarships, King said. The overall winner will compete at the state level Jan. 17 at Lee University.

“I believe it is truly unfortunate due to the girls not having the experience of a live program,” King said. “They have not been able to form the relationships that is usually formed during the weeks and weeks of practicing and working together. They will not get the opportunity to have any interaction with an audience or with live judging. They also will not have the experience of the suspense of waiting on the ‘envelope’ to be opened and names of winner read. Grace Shockley, 2020 Distinguished Young Woman of Loudon County, will not get to have the experience of giving her farewell and passing on the title. There is just so much they will miss, and it definitely will not be the same.”

Despite the challenges, King and Wilks were determined to provide local girls a contest.

“Because the program is about empowering young women and improving their abilities to interview and speak publicly and to showcase their achievements in scholastics and talent,” King said. “However, this year, we have been able to help them learn how to deal with unexpected circumstances and continually upheaval of their lives. It is also important that we continue to assist them financially as they continue their education and begin their careers.”

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