We talk politics and pageants with Miss D.C. USA Lizzy Olsen, who juggles crown duties with her job on the Hill.
By Sara Cooper
Capitol Hill is one of the busiest and most vibrant places in Washington D.C., and yet Miss District of Columbia USA Lizzy Olsen still manages to stand out in the chaos. The 26-year-old hill staffer, she’s the Majority Director of Operations for the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, handles both her job and her crown effortlessly. After leaving her hometown of Las Vegas to attend college and law school in Oklahoma, Olsen moved to Washington and instantly fell in love with the city. Washington Life sat down with Olsen over coffee in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, and talked about everything from charities to politics to the Lincoln Memorial.
Washington Life: What inspired you to begin competing in the Miss USA pageant?
Lizzy Olsen: I actually had a couple girlfriends who were title holders in different states, and I’ve seen some of them just flourish and make a huge difference in the community and it really brought their lives to another level. Whether it’s modeling or acting or charitable organizations and nonprofits, they did make a difference. I saw other ones of my friends just fall to the wayside and not really do anything with it, and I remember looking at them and thinking, I’d be so great at this job! Every week of my title, I’d have three events! I would be giving back to the community; I would make people understand, even if they didn’t like pageants, so they knew who I was and what I was doing and that I was leaving something important behind. So I just knew that I would understand the job that came with the title and that I would knock it out of the park really. That’s what really got me started, just seeing the good and bad and knowing that I could do the good.
WL: How do you juggle having a job on Capitol Hill and also being Miss D.C. USA?
LO: It’s definitely two full time jobs for sure! I work here Monday through Friday, 9-6. Before I was hired I did full disclosure to my boss: this is what I’m competing for… it’s going to be a lot of work. Basically he was like, “Well what does that entail?” I said I would try to schedule anything 5 and later, and if I did have a day event I would give you ample notice so you’re aware. Then all my weekends would really be dedicated to this title. Which works well with the Senate, because we are on recess on weekends. And then I just told him that there’s about a three week chunk in the summer that if I did win I would have to go to USA and it pretty much would just have to put a big pause on my job. Luckily knowing that and all that information they still offered me the job! I am lucky to have such great bosses. But I think that working in a place where I am Monday through Friday does help a lot… and I prefer to be busy and I know that I only have twelve months to do this job. So if that makes me have to work 9-5, leave for an event 7-10, and then go home and work out and then go to bed, that is what it is. That’s what I signed up for! I’m definitely willing to do that, especially because it’s such an honor and it’s such a short window of time you just really have to make the most of it.
WL: Are there things that you’ve learned in your job on Capitol Hill that have helped you in your role as Miss D.C. USA? Things that you take from?
LO: They correlate. I got both of them at almost the exact same time. I’m not sure what helps more or what assisted one more, but I think they both made me more extroverted. Not that I was an introvert before, but that it pushes you to be that much more outgoing, speak to people you wouldn’t normally speak to. They correlate nicely because a lot of charity events I’ve gotten to go to or I’ve been introduced to… have happened through my job and then I’ve gotten to bring them to the forefront with my crown. So that’s been pretty cool. They made me a harder worker for sure. It’s definitely a full day, 24 hour job. Both of them! They helped each other. They’ve made me a harder worker, they’ve made me more social. I think that they’ve also pushed my love for the District. I feel like I’m really in the thick of it. I feel like I really know the place I represent. I moved here to work in the District of Columbia, to be part of the legislative process, and I feel like that makes me the perfect representative for the District. It’s what everybody in the world thinks about D.C., and so the perfect representative for that is someone who is really involved in it; and for USA, I really am involved with the whole legislative process. I mean, laws we follow every day. That’s exciting, how it plays into each other.
WL: The charities and organizations that you support, such as No Kid Hungry and Read Across America – why are you interested in that type of organization? What started that?
LO: When I was in college I was part of a sorority and one of our charities was Read Across America. One of several, but that was the one that really stuck out to me. I love kids. Love them! I could hang out with them all day long and I’d be perfectly happy without seeing an adult. I just think they’re honest and sweet! So we did that, and we went to at risk schools or inner city schools, and we took the entire day to read to the kids. It was right on the cusp of reading becoming nerdy, the cool kids maybe not reading as much. Then to see cool college kids coming to read to them, you saw this change in them where it was still cool to read, and you know “Oh if they do it, I want to do it too”. I think that education is one of the things that you have to achieve it, so nobody can say you didn’t deserve it and nobody can take it away from you no matter where you’re from or what you’ve been born into. I think at such an impressionable age it’s really important to make them understand that this is your ticket out. Whether you come from a great family or a not so great family it doesn’t matter. This is just pretty much your gate to whatever you want to do. So when I got involved with Read Across America I was like, mentoring kids and education/literacy, those are my two passions in life. So when I moved to D.C., I specifically wanted to work with something like that. Then I found the National Center for Children and Families, and basically it’s just a second chance at life for families. There’s foster care, there’s housing, there’s tutoring, there’s mentoring, there’s rehabilitation programs for adults. It’s the full kit and caboodle. From the parents to the kids, this is their sanctuary. It’s just my favorite thing ever, I love it. I probably do an event with them once every two weeks. I love them. I started being a homework helper with them and tutoring with them and it really was just me one on one with these kids and it made the biggest difference. Homework sounds so awful to them and when you break it down and you make it more fun and they see “Oh, well she’s doing it”, you seriously see the change in them and they get excited to do it. And my hope is that they stay excited to do it, and that they understand that if they keep doing it they can do anything in life. I ended up falling in love with them… You have to want to get better to live there, because they make you go through education courses. This isn’t just handout, this is you’re working for a second chance. So I love that. I actually got introduced to No Kids Hungry through Food Network – I’m kind of a foodie. One of my girlfriends is a teacher and she told me, and I found out after researching No Kids Hungry, that some kids only meals the whole week are their hot lunches provided to them by school. That just terrified me, I could not deal with that. I did some research into No Kids Hungry and found out that they provide hot breakfast and hot lunch for kids, and then they provide educational programs for their parents and the kids so they have other options with how to feed them, healthy options. I really like that, so I try to around Thanksgiving and Christmas do my own fundraiser with them, just donate my own money and try to get my friends and people who don’t know about it interested in it. Then I just donate it to No Kids Hungry. Kids… I love them and I feel like they shouldn’t be to blame for their circumstances they were born into. I feel like they deserve everything in the world, and so all of my charities somehow at some point have had to do with kids. Even I think in a way The Wounded Warriors has to do with kids, because a lot of times I’m with their families also. With The Wounded Warriors, I think that’s a big part of being an American, is they do their job to protect you, so if they get hurt it’s your job to protect them and help them. I think that that’s really important. Especially because I’m Miss D.C. USA, I’m representing the nation’s capital, how could I not be involved with armed services of some kind. Those are definitely two really important ones to me. But pretty much anyone who is disadvantaged in a way, it gets me going. Whether it’s kids, animals, The Wounded Warriors, that’s just my thing.
WL: Have there been any changes since you got the title of Miss D.C. USA where you’ve been able to accomplish more for these organizations or feel like you’ve played a bigger role in fundraising and those types of things?
LO: I feel like I’ve been very present in the community compared to other times, other titles, other organizations. I try to make it a point to where if there is some kind of service program, I’m there. People who aren’t interested in pageants know, “Oh God, there’s that Lizzy again at that other charity event”, and that’s okay with me! I want to be present in the community because I know it’s the only way I can make a difference. So for me, I think I’ve brought attention to NCCF and I’ve just deepened our connection as a pageant with NCCF. We actually do a toy drive every year with them, before I got involved and I didn’t know that! So now I think we’ve just gotten even a deeper connection with them. I think with Wounded Warriors we’ve also grown a deeper connection with them this year through my relationships with them. And I also think a presence on the Hill we haven’t had as much before as we do now, just because I’m so intertwined with it. I’m lucky to have a great program already, and D.C. is such a cool place to win, because you have so many opportunities that a lot of other places don’t. It’s a pretty exciting place. I’ve been trying to just, while I’m in my position, kind of deepen any bonds we’ve had with past charities and organizations but also introduce my own. I actually started writing for the online magazine The DC Ladies, so I’m hoping once I leave they continue that monthly article with the D.C. program. Also with my title, I get to speak with big magazines, and I think that because I work for the Senate and because I have this title, it sparks more interest for people. They’re kind of surprised by it! I think the publicity has been good for that.
WL: On a day to day basis, what can people do in order to support these organizations?
LO: So the NCCF has events constantly and they have a website. It’s national, but they have about three campuses locally at D.C., all our shelters, mentoring programs, you name it. It’s like a haven; it’s their home, so there’s never a time they’re not there. So there’s never a time you can’t volunteer. They also take donations on their website… Wounded Warriors happily takes donations, USO happily takes donations. And for that, I think that’s really important. Even if somebody doesn’t feel like they want to be on the ground doing charity work one on one, I think that donating is the easiest way to do that. Everybody has a website, everybody I work for has a website. I also think that it’s important especially during the holidays to keep in mind places like NCCF and keep in mind USO, Wounded Warriors, because their lives are a lot different than ours, especially during the holiday seasons. I always tell people if they haven’t volunteered, to do it. It doesn’t have to be the ones I’ve chosen, but find something that tugs at your heart strings. I am a huge animal protection advocate, so if that’s your thing, maybe go to a shelter and volunteer with them. I really try to stress to people, if you haven’t done it yet, you won’t understand it until you do it. So just try it, you might have to try ten before you find one that you love, but I promise you there is one out there that you will love.
WL: Miss USA plays a huge role in raising breast and ovarian cancer awareness, so if you were to win the title do you have any thoughts or ideas on the steps you would want to take for that?
LO: I actually just went to a breast and ovarian cancer fundraiser this week! So that was fun, it was called the News Bash, so it’s all of the women from the local news. They have a big fundraising and awareness party so that was great. I think everybody’s life has been touched by cancer in some way, shape, or form. My best friend – both of her parents have cancer. So it’s something very present in my life. My coach actually does an enormous fundraiser when she does Race for the Cure. She has a huge program for that, so I try to get to that and stay involved with that. I really think that just making that a huge priority for me if I did win Miss USA, because there’s not somebody who hasn’t been involved with cancer… and it really is time to find a cure. The only way you can do that is through volunteering and fundraising. It really is. I think it’s a lonely disease and I think that people don’t understand that not only can you give money but you can also just be a companion or a mentor to the people with cancer or families going through cancer. I think that would be exciting, because that will even open up my eyes further towards cancer research, specifically breast and ovarian. That’s something that I look forward to if I win.
WL: Are you looking to stay on the Hill and stay involved in politics in the future? Maybe after the pageant or even long term?
LO: I always say I’m a lifer. A lot of people in D.C. are like “Oh I’m just here for a couple of years” and I’m so confused when I hear that! Because I moved here with the intention of not going anywhere. I mean, never say never, I know that. Obviously I want to live in New York if I won Miss USA. But I know the process I have here and the road that I want to accomplish while I’m here, and I don’t see that in a short time frame. I see that long term. I know the difference I want to make, and how I want to get my hands dirty with the legislative process. That’s a long time, it takes a long time to get there. This is not for the faint of heart at all, and it’s not an overnight success story situation. I’ve put in the work to get this far, I’m not stopping any time soon. I love D.C.; I think it’s so fun! It’s the most social place I’ve ever lived in my life, which is seriously ironic, being from Las Vegas. It is more social I promise you. And young! Really young. I love it.
WL: What do you like to do with your free time in D.C.?
LO: [laughs] My ample free time! I love to walk, and I’m kind of a history nerd, so it’s the perfect place to live for that. My favorite place in D.C. by far aesthetically is the Lincoln Memorial. I try to go there at sunrise or sunset because it’s just unbelievable. But I also take a weekend walk every Sunday down to the waterfront in Georgetown back up to the Woodley park area and just around Georgetown. I love Georgetown. A lot of outdoor activities when it’s not cold or raining. I’m also a big movie person. So if I’m not doing a charity event or I’m not volunteering or not working, I try to do things outside. I try to hang out with my friends so they don’t leave me! Any kind of outdoor exercise, I’m a foodie so I like to go try new restaurants around town, and then movies. Definitely my thing. I travel a lot so that’s fun for me too. Those are probably my favorite things. There’s always an email or some kind of link that’s like, this from 5-7, this from 8-10. I never go home! But I love it, I wouldn’t have it any other way. We are young, and it’s the perfect time to live here. When I say young, I mean 80 and younger. I don’t think of it as just 20 to 30. My boss is only 39 or in his 40s, and to me that’s so young to be that achieved. That’s the thing with D.C., everybody is so well established and so successful and they’re so young. I’m just in awe of it. Even the girls I competed against at Miss D.C. USA, their resumes were unbelievable! Shocking! I was very impressed. It’s not about anything superficial here, it’s really about your resume and your job and being proud of that but still having fun and being young and living in such a great city. I think that’s what gets me so excited about living in D.C. and not in a hurry to get anywhere, because there’s very few cons I can think to it in general. Big fan!
Lizzy competes in the Miss USA Pageant in Baton Rouge on July 12th.