Tara Pizer, a former Miss Madison pageant contestant, now runs the show

Pizer is believed to be the first former contestant in her position
tara pizer sitting on a couch

Tara Pizer came agonizingly close to being named Miss Madison — she was first runner-up on three separate occasions — but clearly those near misses didn’t sour her on the competition. Pizer now runs the show.

Pizer, 27, was named executive director of Miss Madison in June 2018 and is believed to be the first former contestant to serve in that position.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” Pizer says of her new volunteer role. “A lot of time and effort. But it has been a joy to give the experiences I’ve had to others.”

The second Miss Madison competition under Pizer’s leadership was held in January at East High School, and the winner will compete for Miss Wisconsin in Oshkosh in June.

Both the city and state events are under the umbrella of Miss America, an organization that dates to the 1920s and one that has experienced controversy recently with the elimination of the swimsuit competition in 2018 and the resignation of high-profile chairwoman Gretchen Carlson last year.

Pizer is an unwavering proponent of the competitions, citing her own experience and how they bring scholarships, self-confidence and enduring friendships.

Pizer is a Richland Center native who attended the University of Wisconsin–Madison and earned a nursing degree, then a master’s in health administration. She currently works in pharmaceutical sales.

“I absolutely love it, but it’s nothing I ever thought I would do,” she says of the sales job. “I got recruited for it through my Miss America experience. A recruiter saw on LinkedIn that I was a volunteer and had competed. She called and asked if I wanted an interview.”

One thing the competitions taught her was perseverance. She entered 13 times under the Miss America auspices before winning a title in 2013 on her 21st birthday — Miss Southern Lakes, the first of four regional titles that sent her to the statewide Miss Wisconsin competition.

Of competing, she says, “I enjoyed it. You win scholarships along the way. It was my extracurricular activity, like a sport or a club. You become really close with the girls you compete against.”

One of those was Susan Fochs, now marketing manager at StatePoint Media in Madison. She met Pizer at a Miss Fox River Valley competition in Appleton.

“It was my first open competition,” Fochs says. “I was incredibly nervous and didn’t really know what was going on. Tara could tell how nervous I was. She was warm and welcoming. She’s a fantastic mentor.”

Some may be surprised to learn that many competitions around Wisconsin are, as Fochs noted, open, meaning anyone residing or going to school in the state can enter.three different shots of Tara during her pageants

Miss Madison is an open competition. The 2019 titleholder, Kylie Thompson, lives in Green Bay and is originally from Beloit.

“She was in Madison a lot this year,” Pizer says. Thompson’s appearances included one at a benefit for an eating disorder awareness group at Hilldale Shopping Center in October.

In the Miss Madison competition, contestants are asked to discuss a cause or platform that holds meaning for them. It’s called a red-carpet statement. Pizer’s was cystic fibrosis. Her mother was born with the disease and has far outlived the average life expectancy for people with it. Pizer likes sharing her mom’s story.

Other aspects of the competition include talent, evening gown, personal interview and on-stage question. The swimsuit competition, as noted, is history.

Among Pizer’s duties as Miss Madison director is recruiting five judges for the competition. Her contestant experience included a run-in with a judge who did not like Pizer’s personal interview answer to a question about a proposed oil pipeline.

“He slammed his hand on the table, stood up and yelled at me,” she says. “I said, ‘I’m sorry you don’t agree with me.’ ”

She counsels her judges: “Ask any question as long as it gives you an idea of who they truly are.”

Pizer also recruits contestants, and it can be a challenge. “I have been referred to as a ditzy blonde so many times because I am blond and in pageants,” she says. “Well, I have a master’s degree. Once girls get involved and see what it’s actually about, it’s easy to keep them.”

Miss Madison had 10 contestants in 2019. Pizer wouldn’t want many more — it would be difficult logistically for a one-day event — but it’s a far cry from what may have been the first Miss Madison competition in 1926. The winner was announced in a front-page, top-line headline in the Wisconsin State Journal. There were more than 50 entrants.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Miss Madison competition. Linda Johnson Moore won that first year in 1970 and went on to win Miss Wisconsin and compete for Miss America. I reached out to Moore, the first of nine Miss Madison winners to also win the state event.

Moore recalls the pageants fondly, though she was pleased with the recent decision to drop the swimsuit competition.

“I went on record in 1972,” Moore notes, “saying it wasn’t necessary and it undermined the authority of the scholarship winners.”

Pizer isn’t so sure. She thought the physical fitness component was important but that the swimsuit competition should have accounted for a smaller percentage of contestants’ overall scores. “There are people who loved the switch and a lot who didn’t,” she says. “But if I didn’t support [the change], I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his blog, “Doug Moe’s Madison,” on madisonmagazine.com.