There is no one way to be an environmentalist, and no one knows that better than Rachel Rakovan.
Over the years she’s worked as an ecology and biology professor, and started her own environmental education nonprofit. Currently she works as an energy consultant. But if you spot Rakovan at a community meeting about air pollution, or an environmental conference, you’ll notice something special about her: she will likely be wearing eye-catching earrings and red, white and blue sash which reads, “Miss Allegheny County PA for America 2019.”
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Rakovan says she’s wanted to compete in the Miss America system since she was a kid. Now, she’s part of a new division which allows unmarried woman with children to compete, along with widows and women who are divorced. Rakovan has two young daughters.
Her platform, which she promotes through appearances, volunteering and speaking engagements, is renewable energy and access to clean water. Those are the issues she talks up to judges in competitions.
“It’s not necessarily one that is common, because it can be considered controversial,” Rakovan says.
She has been outspoken about issues like the potential air and water pollution from the ethane cracker Shell is building in Beaver County. Rakovan says with renewable energy, no one has to choose between having a job and living in a clean, safe place. She grew up in Portsmouth, Ohio, downriver from a uranium enrichment facility in Piketon, and nearby a coke plant.
“Many of my friends and family members passed away from a variety of different types of cancers,” Rakovan says. She blames emissions from those industries.
Rakovan says people often have preconceived ideas about what pageant contestants do, and who they are. She says sometimes people even assume pageant queens aren’t intelligent.
“Pageantry celebrates everything that I am, “ Rakovan says. “It’s not just the way that I look. And that’s what the disconnect is with a lot of people that don’t understand it.”
She says the public speaking skills she’s learned through competing in pageants have come in handy with hosting her show on public access television, “Eco Action with Rachel Rakovan.”
Carl Cimini is her producer at Pittsburgh Community Television.
“Rachel brings a different dynamic to her show,” Cimini says. “She does her beauty pageant thing, and she’s kind of glamorous. That’s great if you’re on air selling Toyotas. But it doesn’t hurt if you’re selling environmental care. I think it works.”
Rakovan interviews environmentalists, wellness experts and politicians on the monthly show. Matt Mehalik, executive director of Breathe Project is her latest guest. He says Rakovan’s interest in fashion and her pageant title are more of an opportunity than a liability.
“Trying to cross those past perceptions is how ideas make their way to a broader audience,” Mehalik says. “People can realize that they have values in common, despite images or attitudes they have in their minds.”
Amanda Beagle is a former Miss Ohio who coaches pageant contestants. She says environmental issues have become a little more common as pageant platforms over last decade. Last year at the Miss America pageant, Miss Alabama’s platform was reducing trash. Miss Michigan used some of her time on stage to bring attention to the Flint water crisis. But Beagle says the judges are looking at more than just a particular cause.
“I think what they’re looking for is authenticity,” she says. “So did this person just choose the platform because they had to have one, or is this something that they’ve really been working and living every single day?”
Rachel Rakovan says for her, it’s the latter. She was recently elected as a delegate to the state Green Party.
“I spent my whole life working towards this,” she says. “I know it’s my life purpose.”
Rakovan will continue to coach her own pageant and modeling clients, and she’s starting a gown rental business so that pageantry can be more accessible and affordable. The proceeds from some of the rentals will be donated to support clean water projects in West Africa.
Rakovan also gets another chance to promote her environmental platform on April 6, when she competes in the Miss Pennsylvania for America competition in Lancaster.