When Amber Barto was 16 and vying for the Miss Arizona’s Outstanding Teen title, she said upon winning, “My biggest dream is to become Miss America.”
The Ahwatukee woman took a big step toward achieving that dream when she was crowned Miss Arizona 2021 on July 19.
Her next step comes in December in Connecticut when she represents the Grand Canyon State in the Miss America Competition, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary.
In the seven years since she was crowned Outstanding Teen, Barto has accomplished much, both at Mountain Pointe High School and then at Arizona State University, where in May she earned a Masters of Legal Studies from Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.
Last year she earned bachelor degrees in business law and political science from ASU.
As she studied, she contributed more than 1,000 hours in various volunteer positions, raising more than $300,000 locally to benefit various charities.
Barto, who divides her time between her family home in Ahwatukee and her own Tempe residence, represented Scottsdale in the Miss Arizona competition at the Madison Center for the Arts and bested 19 competitors.
According to MissAmerica.org, the Miss America event has evolved in society as women in society have evolved.
In 2018, they determined candidates would “no longer be judged on outward appearance” and eliminated the swimsuit competition to provide “additional time and focus on the candidates’ voices to be heard more often,” it proclaimed.
Barto lauded the program’s Social Impact Initiative, saying the Miss America organization is focused on giving back and making a difference in the community.
“Each candidate has their own cause that they’ll use their title to promote throughout their year,” she said. “This is relatively rare in competitions like this and while community service is emphasized in other organizations, the Social Impact Initiative is a large part of our competition.”
“We do a pitch during the competition where we speak about our cause, why it is important and what we have done with it as well as submit an essay to the judges for the competition about the work we’ve done with our Social Impact. It also usually plays a massive role in the interview process,” she said.
Barto’s chosen Social Impact Initiative is “Leadership Through Service” – a cause she has held dear for well over a decade, and one which launched her commitment to community service well before she entered Mountain Pointe.
“Community service is really a way of life for me; it’s something that’s been integrated in my life and I have personally seen the benefits of it,” she explained.
“After losing my mentor to pancreatic cancer when I was 13, I wanted to give back to the cause that took her and this helped me develop a deep passion for community service.”
Her mentor, Denise Swartzman, director of the Arizona Cinderella Program, lost a 10-year battle with pancreatic cancer in 2012.
“Participating in volunteerism, I blossomed as a leader and person, continuing to impact the world around me,” Barto said. “I continued to delve into my passion through my honors thesis, and using research and interviewing not-for-profit leaders, I discovered methods to encourage others to serve.
“In an incredibly volatile time where differences are questioned, community service provides a way to collaborate.”
She said Swartzman’s influence continues to inspire her.
“She really impacted the kind of person I wanted to be. I just lived by the legacy she left. She had this positivity about her; I wanted to follow her example and inspire other people to give back and be the best they can be.”
Community service was paramount during Barto’s ASU years, during which time, among other leadership roles, she was spokesperson for the Phoenix affiliate of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, a position she still holds.
Among the honors Barto received at ASU were graduating Summa Cum Laude, earning the Moeur Award by maintaining a 4.08 GPA and the Dean’s Award, and being chosen as the Graduation Celebration Speaker from the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. She was also a member of Barrett, the Honors College.
Pitching her Social Impact Initiative onstage to Miss Arizona 2021, judges counted for 15 percent of the competition’s scoring, with the talent portion counting for 35 percent.
Following her lifelong passion for dance and choreography, Barto performed a contemporary dance to the instrumental “Dream Chasers,” by Future World Music, a composer she says she uses often for dance routines of her own, and for others.
“I love the style of this song because of the power that builds up. It feels so appropriate for a competition that empowers women to achieve their greatness,” she said. “The song is a couple minutes long, but for the competition it has to be 90 seconds.”
Barto choreographed the dance herself – she’s been doing choreography since she was 15 and calls it a passion.
“I have actually choreographed many dances that have graced the Miss Arizona stage, aside from my own. I often choreograph dances for individuals who are participating in competitions like Miss America, as well as frequently choreograph at my alma mater, Mountain Pointe High School, for their dance program.”
She also dances and tries to take ballet “every so often at the studio where I grew up, Tempe Dance Academy.”
A self-described avid dancer since age 2 who was also a member of the ASU Spirit Squad that captured the 2017 International Cheer Union Jazz World Championship, Barto said she will perform a similar contemporary dance for the talent portion of the Miss America Competition.
In addition to being crowned Miss Arizona 2021, Barto was also named as Talent Preliminary winner, Evening Gown Preliminary winner, and the Quality of Life Award for Social Impact Initiative Leadership Through Service, which encourages local youth to be involved with community service.
She earned approximately $8,000 in scholarships for her post-graduate studies.
The Miss America Organization and the Miss America Foundation, both nonprofits, award scholarships to the new Miss America 2021, runners-up and others in and outside the competition.
And semantics are important: the Miss America event is no longer a pageant, but “a competition” and titleholders are referred to as “candidates” rather than contestants.
The competition is ever evolving” from its start in 1921 when it was touted as a “bathing beauty revue.”
In 1944, college scholarships replaced “furs and movie contracts,” a change credited to Miss America 1942 Jean Bartel, the first ‘college girl’ to win the crown.
Bartel, who followed her pre-Miss America passion and did become a film and stage actress, and remained single until two decades after winning the crown, died in 2011 at age 87.
For Barto, watching the annual Miss America competition nurtured dreams of one day getting involved. In 2014, she was crowned Miss Arizona’s Outstanding Teen which, she said led to one of the most memorable years of her life.
“That year provided the opportunity and stance to make that difference I wished to achieve and led to significant personal growth, but also gave me an entire sisterhood of women from all over the state that have been involved in my life ever since,” she recalled.
She said as the years passed and she
focused on college and other life goals, she never stopped wanting to be involved with the Miss Arizona Organization, and did so as a ‘forever titleholder’ and volunteer.
“In 2019, I decided to get back on the Miss Arizona stage and captured the title of Miss Scottsdale 2019 and served for a year and a half as a local titleholder, promoting my social impact of ‘Leadership through Service’ where I was then able to go on and spend time with the Miss Arizona class of 2021 who remind me every day why I love this competition,” she said.
“Aside from the immense amount of scholarship money that I earned to pursue a future in law and politics, this network of women pushes me to be a better version of myself and inspires me all the time through their accomplishments, kind hearts, and passion for giving back.
“Overall, the Miss Arizona and Miss America program provide so many benefits of which I have gotten to experience and my involvement has changed my life.”
The Miss America 2021 competition will be held for the second year at Mohegan Sun, a resort casino operated by the Mohegan tribe in Connecticut that opened in 1996. It boasts 185 acres along the Thames River and 1,600 hotel rooms. The 12,000 square foot Mohegan Sun Arena will host the Miss America competition for the next three years.