Madeline Van Ert—2013 Mayo High School grad and current Miss Rochester—knows exactly what she wants to do.
Even if she doesn’t know exactly what she wants to do.
“My mom always makes fun of me, saying I’m “jack of all trades, master of none,” says Van Ert, laughing. “I’m all over the board.”
But for someone who claims to be lacking direction, she may be the most driven and focused woman you’ll meet. The 18-year-old University of Minnesota student (whose current major is “really, really undecided”) has a list of accomplishments unrivaled by most 30 year olds.
She pioneered Mayo High School’s varsity letter in community service—and earned it. Spearheaded Rochester’s Fine Arts for Kids program. Worked at an orphanage in Guatemala. Auditioned for—and won a “golden ticket” on—American Idol. Twice. Was awarded the KTTC/United Way “10 Who Make a Difference” award at 16. Has put in thousands of volunteer hours. Has performed on dozens of stages. And, of course, is the reigning Miss Rochester.
“My life belongs to the world. I will do what I can.”
It’s early June and Madeline Van Ert is learning about leg makeup. “I’m actually wearing it right now,” she tells me, raising an eyebrow and lifting her leg to show me, as if sharing a secret. “It makes your legs look more even. I’m practicing.”
Van Ert has been doing a lot of practicing as she prepares for the Miss Minnesota pageant, which is being held just days after we meet for our interview. She’s new to the pageant circuit—the Miss Rochester title is her first—but she has a few experts in her corner. Van Ert has become good friends with Kate Wilson, the 2014 Miss Rochester. With her help, Van Ert’s learned the secrets of “swimsuit glue” and the key to walking on stage in heels (“It takes a lot more skill than you would think!”).
She’s been conducting mock interviews—with KTTC news anchor Robin Wolfram and Mayor Ardell Brede—and culling advice from radio personality Tracy McCray as she prepares for the interview portion of the Miss Minnesota pageant.
“The questions are ridiculously hard,” says Van Ert. Then adds, “If I knew how to solve ISIS, would I be in this room right now? Probably not!”
Her words come out in quick bursts as we talk (“I need to learn to speak more slowly,” she says at one point) and she throws her head back and laughs as often as she leans in to make a point. She speaks with her hands and an expressive face that underscore her long history of performing.
“Obviously, I’m not a stereotypical beauty queen,” she says. But it’s a comment to be debated. There’s a cheerfulness and an ease about Van Ert that make her a natural fit for a public role. And if the particulars of pageants are foreign to her, the core of the program—the talent, service, and community components—are fully in her wheelhouse.
Van Ert’s been singing with her family—parents Rick and Lael, siblings Josephine, 16, Ghislaine, 13, and Rhys, 9—since her earliest memory.
“My family is ridiculously musical,” she says. “We play a million instruments and make music together. People always joke that we’re the von Trapp family singers—except the Van Erts.”
In a classic case of art following life, much of the family was in the 2008 Honors Choirs production of The Sound of Music, with Madeline playing Louisa, her sister Josephine as Brigitta, Ghislaine as Gretel, and Rick as Uncle Max.
Van Ert’s first public performance, however, at age four, was very much a solo endeavor. She was at the Minnesota State Fair when the karaoke contest caught her eye. She ran on stage, grabbed the microphone, and started singing.
“I basically wouldn’t stop,” Van Ert says. “I was like, ‘Listen to me!’ They gave me free ice cream afterwards. It was worth it.”
Through the years, Van Ert has performed in Honors Choirs, Mayo High School’s Southtown Singers, Bella Voce Young Women’s Choir, numerous musicals (“I was the nerdy piano player in High School Musical. Typecasting, but that’s OK.”), and at Christ United Methodist Church, where her mom serves as children’s ministry director. (Dad, Rick, works in Global Business Solutions at Mayo Clinic.)
Dance has also been an important part of Van Ert’s life. She’s taken classes at Dance Connection, Janet Lang Dance Studio, and Allegro School of Dance & Music—studying both ballet and modern dance. Though she had to quit ballet in high school (“my ankles are small and weak!”), she remained on the Mayo High School Dance Line for four years. And she credits dance for teaching her lessons she’ll carry for the rest of her life—about discipline, and being graceful and centered.
“I’ve met Ryan Seacrest. We hang out.”
With her background, it’s no wonder Van Ert was drawn to audition for American Idol—a dream since watching season 1 as a little girl. “We don’t really watch TV as a family,” she says. “But we watched American Idol every year.”
When she was 16, she got her chance: American Idol auditions came to Chicago. “I was like, ‘Mom! We have to go! It isn’t even a question!’” Van Ert says.
She quickly realized the auditions weren’t how they appeared on TV, with all hopefuls auditioning directly for celebrity judges. Instead, it takes three rounds of auditioning in front of staff and producers to make it to the televised portion. Van Ert earned a coveted “golden ticket” during the first round, but didn’t make it to round two. She did, however, make it on TV.
“I was watching the show that year, and they showed a tape of [Idol judge] Nicki Minaj saying, ‘Are you ready to sing for us?!’ And then they showed a shot of me going, ‘Yeah!’ Everyone said, ‘Oh my gosh! You met Nicki Minaj?’ and I’m like, ‘No. That never happened.’ They just [spliced] the tapes together. But that was cool!”
Two years later, when auditions were in Minneapolis, Van Ert—this time with her sister, Josephine—tried again. This time, she made it through the second round.
“Josephine and I auditioned together, and they tried to make us have a sing off and we said, ‘no.’ We told them we sound really good when we sing together. So we sang ‘Baby’ by Justin Bieber and harmonized and they let us both through, which was amazing!”
Van Ert says nerves got her at the next round. But with her characteristic cheerfulness, she shrugs it off. “It’s just so cool to be a part of that,” she says, then laughs. “It’s just cool to be able to say, ‘I’ve been to those auditions. I’ve met Ryan Seacrest. We hang out.’”
Recently, Van Ert took her performing background in another direction. Last fall, an alumnus from her sorority (Gamma Phi Beta) told her she needed a model with short hair for a photo shoot—would Van Ert be interested?
“I was like, ‘Free haircut? Sure!” says Van Ert. The job led to a modeling contract, which led to a trip to a hair show in Chicago (“apparently that’s a thing!”), and exposure with other modeling agencies. She’s now signed with both Privileged Model Management and Agency Model & Talent out of Minneapolis.
“Way leads on to way. You never know what’s going to happen. If you would’ve told me five years ago that I’d be modeling in Minneapolis, I’d be, ‘Umm … are you sure?’ But it’s so much fun. You get to play these different characters—sort of like acting. It’s fun to do, and then they pay you for it. And, you know, I’m in college! So I’m not going to say no.”
“I just love service.”
For as long as she can remember, Van Ert has been an advocate for community service. She can’t pinpoint when her drive to serve started—though says growing up with three younger siblings played a role. “I guess a lot of my life at home has been trying to help them out, help them grow up, and to be a good role model,” she says.
She also points to Christ United Methodist Church (CUMC) as an influence, where she has taught Sunday school, packed backpacks for Food 4 Friends, a Channel One Regional Food Bank/Olmsted County program, and participated in the Appalachian Service Project, for which high school students travel to Kentucky to help repair homes in impoverished areas.
But, clearly, her passions are also innate. “I just love service. I love people in general, just getting to know them and their stories. It’s so interesting to me that you can walk down the street and pass 50 people and every single one of them has their passions, their pains, their motivations, their loves. And we kind of just walk by. And, for me, I just want to know everything out there, and make these connections and see and learn from each other. And service is such a great way to do that. I love the feeling it gives me, as well as the opportunities it provides for other people.”
Van Ert has given her time to, literally, dozens of volunteer positions—from staffing the Mayo Clinic information desk (“you meet so many people from so many walks of life!”) to the United Way’s tax program (“I didn’t know anything about taxes, so I had to learn how to do them!”).
Through these experiences, Van Ert noticed a gap: Student volunteers. Most of her fellow volunteers were older adults. She noticed that while students are often active members of their school communities—performing in the arts or participating in sports—they are often missing what Van Ert sees as that key service component. So she set off to change that.
“I think service is such an important aspect of people’s lives. I think it helps you become a holistic member of the community. And our youth sort of get separated from that,” she says. “They’re kind of hard to motivate. You have to give them a little incentive. Once they get out there, they realize, wow. This is a cool thing. But it’s hard to get them to make that initial step.”
So Van Ert devised an incentive: A varsity letter in community service. She found a similar program in a community in Oregon, contacted the directors for information, then took the idea to the United Way of Olmsted County. With Becky Nahvi (the United Way’s then-volunteer and community impact specialist) on board, the duo approached Mayo High School administration. “Everyone was pretty much on board,” says Van Ert. “It’s such a positive message. What are they going to say? No?!”
Van Ert worked with Nahvi to mold the program, created the necessary paperwork, and took it through an approval committee. The program rolled out Van Ert’s senior year, and eight students—including Van Ert—applied and received the letter.
The letter requires a minimum of 145 hours of community service. Van Ert had between 150 and 200. But earning that many hours of service is challenging for anyone—much less busy high school students.
So fueled by her passion for children and the arts, and with an eye toward helping her fellow students earn service hours, Van Ert launched another program: Fine Arts for Kids.
“This is what I was meant to be doing.”
Fine Arts for Kids reached out to grade-school children in need and offered them free piano, dance and visual arts lessons.
“There are kids in the system who don’t have the opportunity to do these kinds of things—especially with all the budget cuts [in the schools],” says Van Ert. “Some friends and I were lucky enough to have arts in our life as youth and have the privilege to be trained in dance and piano and art—so we were able to take those talents and give them back to kids who did not. And that was so fulfilling.”
In developing the program, Van Ert hit a roadblock. CUMC had offered free use of their space for the lessons. But the school district was reticent to allow it—saying the program couldn’t partner with a church. Unable to afford to pay for space, Van Ert was at an impasse. So she appealed directly to Superintendent Michael Muñoz and explained the situation.
“He said, ‘Yes. Go ahead. As long as you’re not mixing church and school, why would I say no? This is a great opportunity.’ I was so thankful because it wouldn’t have happened without him.”
Eight kids signed up for the program. On the first day, one of her students—a fourth-grade boy—turned to Van Ert and said, “Oh my gosh, if I learn to play the piano, I can be a musician when I grow up.”
“He had never even thought of it before,” says Van Ert. “This opportunity had been completely closed off to him simply because of the socioeconomic status he was born in to. And that moment? Wow. I thought, this is what I was meant to be doing.”
It’s a program for which she earned KTTC/United Way’s “10 Who Make a Difference” Award in 2013.
“They don’t need to be pitied.”
Van Ert followed up Fine Art for Kids by taking her service mentality out of the country. And, true to her “way leads on to way” mindset, the road was unplanned.
As she entered her senior year in 2013, Van Ert sat down with her guidance counselor and realized she had enough credits to graduate at the end of the semester. Sure, she’d have to take an online P.E. class and a math class, but otherwise she was set. She decided to go ahead and finish in December. But what would she do with those extra months before starting University of Minnesota in the fall?
Van Ert decided to fly to Guatemala, stay with missionaries in Panajachel who have connections to CUMC, and work at an orphanage in the nearby city of Solola.
She had never traveled alone before—and she didn’t speak Spanish. It was, Van Ert says, “a little terrifying.”
After a week of on-site Spanish lessons, Van Ert spent her time in Guatemala helping in the nursery and teaching music classes in the orphanage.
“I love how music can connect people,” she says. “We sang ‘This Little Light of Mine’ and it hit me that we both know this song. We have totally different backgrounds, but we can come together with this song.”
Van Ert says the most profound lesson she learned in Guatemala, though, was the happiness that permeated everyone she met. “I was taken by the beauty of the people,” she says. “Everyone warned me before I left: You’re going to feel bad because there’s so much poverty and it’s overwhelming. But it was impossible to feel that way. Because everyone, even through they were impoverished, was so joyful. I didn’t pity them, because they didn’t need to be pitied. They are surrounded by this beautiful city with mountains and volcanoes and lakes, and they have this great sense of community and family. It was just amazing.”
“I don’t want to box myself in.”
So what’s the future hold? After the pageant? After she graduates from the University of Minnesota? After another 150 hours of volunteer service?
Van Ert doesn’t know. And then again, she does.
“I’ve always been kind of a high achiever, so it’s always been a back-of-my-head worry that I need to use all my gifts and make sure I’m not wasting them,” she says. “And I think that as long as I’m doing [work] to help other people—that’s when I’ll feel like I’m really using them.”
Van Ert isn’t ready to commit, but feels that non-profit management will be her match. She talks about returning to Guatemala to start a women’s empowerment movement. She says she’d like to take the Fine Art for Kids program to the next level. And, hey, wouldn’t it be fun to become a famous singer? Walk a few red carpets.
“I’ve always been jealous of people who have known what they want to do forever. They’re going to be a nurse. They’re going to go to this college. And they’re doing it. And I’m like, ‘Gosh, I’m undecided.’ But I don’t want to box myself in, either. Like I said, ‘Way leads on to way.’ So I don’t want to plan anything. I’ll get where I’m supposed to be.”