Alice Lee Giannetta said she did not know the first thing about the world of pageantry until her husband Pat told her about the Mrs. America competition.
An attorney, he was chatting with a client who casually mentioned that his wife was a former Mrs. New Jersey. “And then he came home and said, ‘I’m sure there is a Mrs. New York, you should do it,” Alice Lee Giannetta told NBC News. “And I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ But I was curious.”
That curiosity lead Giannetta, a lawyer who has also worked as a model, to begin researching the pageant online. She quickly learned the history of the contest, which was founded in 1977 and celebrates married women who devote considerable time to community service.
A litigation attorney who supports organizations that serve New York’s Asian and Asian-American community, Giannetta said she was instantly intrigued. But she was struck by the lack of diversity among the pageant contestants.
“I didn’t see any Asian Americans among the contestants,” Giannetta, who is 34, said. “I was surprised. And because I think we should lead by example, I said ‘I’m just going to be the change.’”
The Manhattan-based Giannetta then entered and won the Mrs. New York competition last November. She will next compete for the Mrs. America crown, which is scheduled to be broadcast on Aug. 26.
Asian-American representation in media has been important to Giannetta for as long as she can remember. “I came here from Taiwan when I was eight years old,” she said. "And coming from Taiwan where everyone looked like me, in my teenage years I did feel a bit lost.”
“I was raised to be humble and a team player. Being in charge of my own brand was new for me.”
As she tried to piece out what Asian-American identity meant to her, Giannetta said she turned to pop culture, particularly "The Baby-Sitters Club" books featuring the Japanese-American character Claudia Kishi.
“There was one book where she was on the cover, and she always dressed so cool,” Giannetta recalled. “She was my hero, and then when I was a teenager I would read YM and Seventeen, but I never saw Asian faces.”
Giannetta realized that competing in pageants was quite different from working as a model. And while she was used to making strong arguments and defending her positions on issues in the court room, she was not experienced in talking about herself.
“I was raised to be humble and a team player,” she said. “Being in charge of my own brand was new for me.”
Pageant culture was also completely new to Giannetta: As she worked her way up to the Mrs. New York contest, she discovered that there were many traditions and unspoken rules she wasn’t familiar with.
“A lot of the girls presented each other with contestant gifts, and I was very embarrassed because I didn’t have anything,” Giannetta said.
Working with her fellow contestants on coordinated routines also proved to be a challenge. “The rehearsal aspect was hard,” she admitted. “I’m not very well coordinated.”
One thing that Giannetta did find easy was talking about her philanthropic causes. After moving to the United States as a child from Taiwan in the early 1990s, Giannetta watched her parents struggle to build a new life for themselves.
“My parents had no money. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment that just had one mattress left by the former tenant in it,” she said of their first home in Flushing, Queens. "That mattress was our dining table, couch, bed, everything.”
Giannetta said that those memories along with her experience learning English after enrolling in school inspired her to get involved with organizations serving families like hers in New York City. She said she became involved in the founding of Brooklyn Asian Voice Organization (BRAVO) — a nonprofit that serves teens of Asian descent — in 2008.
“A lot of teenagers didn't have a safe space to go after school,” she said, noting that BRAVO served a mixed population of first and second generation Americans. “We help them feel confident through sports, dance, and internships.”
For the all-important gown portion of the Mrs. New York pageant, Giannetta decided to borrow one from a friend rather than buying or ordering her own. “My friend was in a fitness competition in Toronto earlier in 2016,” she explained. “Her dress was gorgeous — it was lacy and stretchy. I paid for it to be shipped from Toronto.”
Looking back, Giannetta admits that she was initially hesitant to tell her attorney colleagues about her foray into pageantry. But once they found out, they were thrilled, Giannetta said. They even helped her prepare for the question-and-answer portion of the contest.
“It felt more intense than a regular job interview,” she recalled. “We set up a timer and I said, ‘Pretend you are the judge’ and they would ask me any question.”
But perhaps Giannetta’s most enthusiastic supporter is her mother, Lili. “In the beginning, she was hesitant about pageants. She said, ‘You are a lawyer. You are already married,’” she recalled. “But now she is so psyched.”