Getting berated by military vets on Fox’s reality show Special Forces: World’s Toughest Test might seem humiliating, but the insults and demands are just a small sliver of what former Bachelorette Hannah Brown has heard during her time in pageants and competitive dance.
Brown was one of 16 celebrities partaking in training challenges at a military-style camp on Special Forces, where contestants only left if they self-eliminated after challenges became too difficult or an injury prevented them from further competing. Brown proved to be a major standout. In the season finale, which aired on Wednesday, Brown and Olympic soccer player Carli Lloyd were the only two players to make it to the end.
This is impressive as Brown doesn’t come from a traditional athletic background, but she does come from the pageant world. She competed as Miss Alabama in Miss USA 2018, and it’s this type of training that may have proven an unexpected asset on Special Forces — as it also was for her fellow contestant Kenya Moore, a cast member of The Real Housewives of Atlanta and Miss USA 1993.
Moore and Brown were the last two nonathletes standing in the series. Moore self-eliminated in Episode 6 after a previous knee injury prevented her from completing a challenge. Still, the 52-year-old outlasted nine fellow contestants, including Spice Girl Mel B, Olympic gymnast Nastia Liukin, Jamie Lynn Spears, Anthony Scarmucci, chef Tyler Florence, and Dr. Drew Pinksy among others. Brown and Moore proved there’s more to being a beauty pageant queen than just swimsuit competitions.
“Hannah and I, even though we are many years apart, we had that mental toughness and that fortitude that it took to stay in the game and stay focused,” Moore told BuzzFeed News. She described her pageant experiences as “pretty much like war.”
This type of fortitude — finding composure amid intense physical and mental stress — is a skill that pageant alums know well. They often train for years in all areas they are judged on: looks, interview, grace, talent, and (often, yes) swimsuit. They have to be well rounded and focused to progress in the pageant world.
Special Forces upped the pressure for contestants to crumble by having former military personnel yell at them. The contestants weren’t supposed to talk back and were encouraged to simply reply with “yes, staff” or “no, staff.” However several celebrity contestants — usually men like retired NFL player Danny Amendola and former NBA star Dwight Howard — lost their cool and talked back.
But Brown and Moore never broke. Not on Special Forces and not, for Brown, when she was “humiliated” growing up in a dance class where a teacher would single her out and make her feel insecure. And not when a pageant coach told her she had a “bulldog forehead.”
“I haven’t really talked about this, but I started getting baby botox at 22 years old because my pageant coach told me my face looked like a bulldog when I talked and had a lot of expression,” Brown told BuzzFeed News.
Brown also said pageant coaches told her to bleach her hair platinum blonde and that she needed to lose 15 pounds because she had “thunder thighs.”
“That was the ugly side of the pageants, but that’s what a coach did,” she said. “They tried to make you the very best and sometimes that was very brutal criticism.”
Hilary Levey Friedman, a sociologist and author of Here She Is, a book that takes a historical look through a feminist lens at beauty pageants, told BuzzFeed News that the Miss USA pageant, which Brown and Moore both competed in, was created to make the swimsuit portion more prominent and competing in the swimsuit portion means being muscular.
Friedman said the only way women competing in these pageants would obtain the desired pageant swimsuit body — which Friedman said is not something she promotes — would be if they lifted weights and were physically strong. This is, of course, in addition to the mental work it takes to put yourself on display to be judged.
“People are often dismissive of pageants, but the actual competition is very intense and requires a lot of mental discipline and knowing how to pace yourself because it’s not just the two-hour show that you would see on TV,” Friedman said. “It’s many, many days of competition and many days of appearances.”
This was evident in the Feb. 1 episode where Brown failed one of the challenges after falling while trying to walk across two small metal poles that were suspended in the air. Afterward, a staff sergeant sarcastically asked if they judge grace in the Miss America pageant, which is something Brown has also competed in.
When she tells him they do, he responds with, “You’re kidding me? I couldn’t tell.” Brown walked away from the interaction seemingly defeated.
However, Brown told BuzzFeed News the insult didn’t actually faze her.
“I was like, OK, whatever, but also, is that the best you can do?” she said, laughing. “If a dance teacher came in or a scary pageant girl came in, I would have been rocked more than these guys yelling at me.”
A pageant alum who knows how to juggle dating multiple men at once and train alongside military vets all while being filmed for reality TV? Now that’s impressive.