I only need one hand to count the number of Black women who have been crowned Miss USA in the pageant’s 60-plus year history—and just a few fingers for the Miss America pageant (which crowned its first Black winner, Vanessa Williams, in 1984). Growing up, the thought of entering my state’s teen pageant crossed my mind for a quick second before reality set in: America doesn’t want to see a Black girl like me as its Miss “whatever” winner. Better yet, America wasn’t ready.
Then in 2016, the Miss USA pageant ended with Deshauna Barber, a dark-skinned Black woman and the pageant’s first military winner, having a crown placed atop her luscious natural curls. “Finally,” I thought to myself. I felt seen.
Fast forward to this year’s Miss Teen USA, America got another dose of #BlackGirlMagic when Connecticut’s Kaleigh Garris became the new titleholder while rocking her natural hair. Then, it happened again; Cheslie Kryst, a civil litigation attorney representing North Carolina walked away with the Miss USA 2019 title and for the first time ever, three black women currently hold the 2019 Miss USA, Miss Teen USA and Miss America crowns. Seems like America is ready, after all.
It’s been 20 years since Miss Teen USA has crowned a contestant with natural hair, since Ashley Coleman took home the title in 1999. So, of course, the excitement on social media following Garris’ historic win was almost palpable.
“For the first time in a long time the crown has been placed in natural hair. It’s something that people don’t usually see on a regular basis or in these major pageant competitions,” Garris told ELLE.com. “So, having that representation within the African American community has really opened up a lot of people’s eyes and has allowed people to see that people of color can accomplish really amazing things.”
In a society where black women are often ostracized for wearing their natural hair (if you recall, NYC had to pass a law that banned discrimination against natural hair), Garris’ win felt like a win for black women everywhere. Pageants have long perpetuated the notion that straight, long, flowing hair is far more desirable than natural kinks, coils, and curls and Garris admits to falling down that trap during the beginning of her pageant journey until she realized its damaging effects on her natural texture.
“When I was younger, I competed with extensions in my hair a lot, that’s how I usually styled my hair, but over time I just got more heat damage, and my hair just kept getting shorter and shorter because it kept burning off,” she recalls. Garris went natural from that point on, but wanted to do a length check and straightened her hair again. You can take a wild guess what happened next. “I had to basically get another very large chop, and wore a pixie cut to grow my hair back out. It’s been a year and eight months and I’ve vowed to stop putting heat on my hair. No heat, no extensions because I want my hair to be as healthy as it can be naturally.”
As a biracial teen who attends a predominantly white high school in Connecticut, Garris says the thing she loves most about having natural hair is educating the uninitiated. “I go to a predominately white school and then an art school, and natural hair is something that they’re not used to,” she continues. “They’re fascinated by it and I’m able to share information about curly hair with them so that they understand it more, especially when I do different styles.”
Her favorite style? Finger coils, the same style she morphed her hair into the night of her special win, using Chi’s Argan Oil to fight frizz and add shine to her curls, as well as the brand’s Argan Oil Shampoo and Conditioner that “are really moisturizing and have been very helpful to rehydrating the back of my hair.”
With the new Miss Teen USA title and IG fame comes a lot of responsibility, but Garris is up for the challenge. Between preparing for her upcoming prom and graduation and entering her freshman year Southern Connecticut State University to study nursing, the new titleholder will continue to do her Miss Teen USA duties, including press events and volunteer work. But, what she’s most excited about is using her win to be a beacon of hope to those little Black girls who don’t always see themselves represented on such a grand stage and hopefully, in turn, can inspire more girls to feel proud of their natural beauty.
“One thing I would tell any aspiring pageant girl out there is you have to be looking to grow within yourself and learn who you truly are. There’s the ugly side of pageantry and because of that side, it’s easy for you to lose confidence—I didn’t come into pageantry already having that,” Garris said. “But I had to stop worrying about where I fit in and have enough strong will within myself to be comfortable with who I am and embrace my natural hair. And that’s one of the reason why I’ll always compete with my natural hair.”