Since being crowned Miss Pennsylvania 2021 in June, Altoona native Meghan Sinisi has been busy criss-crossing the commonwealth making appearances while also teaching baton twirling and refining her interview skills in preparation for the Miss America competition Thursday.
During a break between appearances in November, Sinisi said the camaraderie gained by taking part in pageants is immeasurable.
“People have this common misconception, in general, of women, that we compete and we can’t get along,” Sinisi said. “Growing up with brothers, I wasn’t in a lot of spaces with a lot of women. So when I started to get involved in baton twirling, that taught me how to have a community of women who have a like-minded goal.”
As the state representative for the Miss America Organization, Sinisi has had the opportunity to support a variety of community events and organizations and to talk about her social impact initiative to inspire autism appreciation and the 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization she founded, “From a New Perspective.”
Her efforts are dedicated to the acceptance, respect and empowerment of people with autism. Unlike many advocates, she doesn’t have a personal connection to anyone with autism.
Sinisi grew up in a Catholic, faith-filled home, the only daughter of Anthony “Tony” and Lori Sinisi and the sister to three baseball-playing brothers.
“They taught me how to have tough skin and not to let things get to me and get to my spirit,” she said of her brothers.
“When I think about my childhood, it was so much backyard baseball and at the baseball field watching them play on the diamond,” she said. “That’s where my love of baseball really grew. I was always at the baseball diamond watching my brothers play.”
As she was there for her brothers’ ballgames, they supported her twirling efforts.
Sinisi began twirling as a 3-year-old with the ShowTwirlers in Altoona, under the mother-daughter team of Pam Maierhofer and PJ Maierhofer Burkin. PJ was the featured twirler of the Penn State Blue Band from 2005-09.
Maierhofer Burkin, 34, who now lives in Findlay, Ohio, said Sinisi “always had a certain sparkle about her.”
She remembers how Sinisi “took to the sport immediately,” noting she was naturally talented and clearly passionate about baton twirling.
“Her passion has never faded,” Maierhofer Burkin said, adding that Sinisi is respectful, kind and a positive example to younger twirlers.
Sinisi calls Maierhofer Burkin “one of my biggest role models” and said she was inspired by her to twirl at the collegiate level despite failing to become a featured twirler in high school.
At Syracuse University, Sinisi became the school’s featured twirler, “The Orange Girl,” from 2013-17.
Her freshman debut came when Syracuse battled Penn State at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
She performed at MetLife Stadium again during the pregame festivities of the 2014 Super Bowl. “It was the most exhilarating performance of my life,” she recalled. “We’ll see how Miss America compares.”
In her teens, Sinisi took baton instruction from Debbie Bernhart of Hollidaysburg, who operates Carol’s School of Baton in Altoona. Sinisi has gone from being a student to being a teacher, working as a twirling instructor.
“Meghan is a teacher’s dream. She likes to practice and is up for a challenge. She keeps after things until she conquers it,” Bernhardt said.
Sinisi didn’t step up to the pageant circuit until college, when she learned scholarships could help pay for her education.
Her ultimate goal is to earn a clinical doctorate in speech-language pathology and pursue a career in early intervention for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Like any college student with working-class parents, Sinisi has college debt.
Winning Miss Pennsylvania came with a $10,000 scholarship and an additional $1,000 scholarship for earning the Social Impact Initiative Award.
At the national level, Miss America 2020 Camille Schrier has earned more than $77,000 in scholarships through the Miss America program, according to the website.
While the scholarships first attracted Sinisi to pageants, the camaraderie found among the contestants and having a platform to raise awareness of autism has kept her involved.
Sinisi said stereotypes about women competing in pageants aren’t true.
“My ideas were totally changed,” she said about competing. “We are all going through it together. It’s a long week; there are a lot of nerves and emotions going into a competition, so you form this camaraderie and are there to support one another. If someone flubs on a question, you can go back to them and support them.”
Maierhofer Burkin said Sinisi is “the type of person you want to see win. She’s the perfect balance of (being) ambitious and determined but also genuine at all times. In today’s world, it’s very hard to find those truly authentic individuals, but she is one and it shines. She is as graceful kneeling down to talk to a brand new baton twirler as she is speaking in front of thousands at a public event.”
But it is the behind the scenes moments when she gets to meet others that Sinisi most enjoys and appreciates.
“You can come from across the state or the country and find you have so much in common,” Sinisi said.
“What I particularly loved about (being the Orange Girl) and now as Miss Pennsylvania are the moments the camera never sees. There are moments in the pregame, when a little person comes up to you and they are interested in you and that’s your moment to leave an impression and inspire them to do something great in their life or to try something new. It’s to be that someone to show them that they can.”
Sinisi said heartwarming encounters can happen anywhere.
When visiting her car sponsor dealership in Hanover for a 10,000-mile service, she shared a “really special moment” with one of the employees.
“We got to talking about our shared belief in God and our faith,” she said, noting that’s not a conversation that she gets to have very often.
“I am a very faith-filled person,” she said. “So to share that moment was extremely special.”
With her car service completed, the employee asked if she could pray with Sinisi. As she recalled the encounter, Sinisi’s voice cracked and tears spilled in heartfelt appreciation.
“She prayed for me and for (my) safety and strength to carry me through with positivity and to inspire others,” Sinisi said. “It was extremely special.”
Sinisi moved away to earn her undergraduate and graduate degrees and “life experiences” but plans to return to the area regardless of how Thursday’s competition goes.
“My love for Altoona and this region of Pennsylvania is because this is where my grandparents and great-grandparents chose to live. They came over from Italy in 1921 when my grandfather was really young. … They chose to start their American dream here,” she said.
While many young people move away, Sinisi said. “I think it’s so important to leave, gain life experience and an understanding of other lives and lived experiences and then return and bring it here to share it with your community.”
“What I want to do as Miss PA and as Miss America is to bring the experiences of every person I meet and share that with the world. I don’t see this position as all about me. I’m a representative of the people that I serve throughout all of Pennsylvania. I always challenge myself to be vulnerable to people so if I hear something, I connect with them. … I try to share. It’s really important when you are a public figure to be relatable to the people you represent.”
Local residents are invited to a “watch party” at 8 p.m. Thursday to support Sinisi at the 100th Anniversary Miss America Competition to be held at the Mohegan Sun Resort in Uncasville, Connecticut. The show will air live on Peacock, NBC Universal’s streaming service. The competition culminates a week of appearances and activities.