Miss Florida Pageant kicks off in Lakeland

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Some of the best and brightest young women in the state are competing in Lakeland this week.

It's the third year the RP Funding Center has hosted the Miss Florida pageant, part of the Miss America Organization that's currently going through some big changes.

It's a moment these young women have prepped for, practiced for and prayed for their whole lives.

"I spent three years in the Miss Florida system and on my third try, here I am," said Sara Zeng, Miss Florida 2017.

Zeng is coming off of a whirlwind year and counting the blessings she says came with the crown.

"It's changed my life," Zeng said. "I was able to pay for more than half of my undergrad at Florida State University and now, I have $25,000 to go back to school, something, never in a million years, I imagined I'd have the opportunity to do."

The Miss America organization is undergoing some changes making this year's theme fitting: "Women On The Move."

"Trying to break that stereotype of people just thinking, you know, they are just in a pageant. This is so much more," said Mary Sullivan, Executive Director of Miss Florida. "These young women don't want to stand still. They want to move and they want to make their own way. They want to make their own mark."

This month, the 97-year-old organization announced it would no longer hold swimsuit or evening gown competitions, steering focus away from physical beauty. Since several states crowned their representatives before the decision, remaining states like Florida will also hold the competitions once more.

It's a bittersweet week for those who see the value in all aspects of the pageant.

"I personally loved the swimsuit competition," Zeng said. "It helped me go from this really skinny scrawny girl to a woman that felt strong and powerful and confident and I don't think I would've strived to become that woman, had I not been part of the swimsuit competition."

"It's something that we've all kind of had to process," Sullivan said. "I don't want to say it was a good or bad decision. I want to see what happens in September. I'm always going to support the organization. I believe in the leadership and moving forward, I think we will get it right."

Going along with the theme of empowerment, Tuesday night's opening number was Carrie Underwood's "Champion."

"I really just think the dance moves and the message really shows that us women, we really are on the move. We are here to make an impact," said Taylor Lokey, Miss Tampa.

In 2018, the definition of "pageant" is changing before our eyes.

"We encourage our young women to be independent, to be free thinkers, to be flexible, adaptable, all the things you need to be in life because you never know what is going to be thrown your way," Sullivan said.

The Miss Florida finals competition is Saturday at 7 p.m. at the RP Funding Center's Youkey Theatre. You can meet the newly-crowned 2018 Miss Florida Sunday morning. We'll have her as a guest on Good Day on FOX 13.