We’ve always known how special #BlackGirlMagic is, but now the world is finally starting to see how bomb we really are. In May, for the first time ever in history, three Black women won the 2019 national pageant titles of Miss USA, Miss Teen USA, and Miss America. The reigning Miss Teen USA, Kaliegh Garris, is still trying to wrap her head around all of this. What a time to be alive! (Cue that Drake.)
Kaliegh,18, remembers being at the Memorial Day parade in Washington, D.C. a few weeks after her crowning where it all settled in for her. “I was sitting there for a second, and I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’ I had to remind myself that I’m Miss Teen USA,” she says, still in shock. “It’s just so crazy to me because it’s something you think about and imagine being when you’re younger, and then, you’re there, and it’s crazy to see how time passes and all that you can accomplish.”
The Connecticut native has clearly come a long way since her first pageant at the age of 8, following in the footsteps of her older sister Samantha, who she saw competing while growing up. Turns out, pageants weren’t really her sister’s thing, but Kaliegh? She thrived in that environment. Contrary to popular belief, pageants are about more than just how you look; they helped Kaliegh improve on her social skills. “I only competed in one pageant every year, and they were natural pageants, so you weren’t allowed to wear makeup until a certain age,” she says. “I was always the shyer one in my family. It helped me get out there and start having conversations with people.”
It’s those unseen benefits of pageantry that motivated the soon-to-be Southern Connecticut State University freshman to apply to the Miss Teen USA competition.
“It’s such an amazing organization, and it really promotes women being themselves and being confident, being progressive, and being able to get out in the community and do things that sometimes women don’t think they can do and be an influence,” Kaliegh shares. “The Miss Teen USA organization really shows that you can be an influencer and be educated and do all these amazing things.”
Even before being selected, the future nursing major embodied all of those qualities; she even founded the nonprofit We Are People 1st. “[It’s] a social movement that I started in honor of one of my older sisters Chauntel. She has multiple disabilities because [she was] born three months premature,” Kaliegh explains. About a week after her birth, Chauntel had a major brain bleed, leaving her legally blind and with cerebral palsy. “Growing up, I was tired of people seeing her differently … I wanted to take away that negative connotation.”
So, Kaliegh goes into schools and teaches students how to use “People First” language. For example, instead of referring to someone as “that autistic boy”, you’d say, “the boy with autism.” “It doesn’t matter if he has autism or not because he’s still a person, so you always want to put the person before the disability,” she says. Besides working to change the way others see people with disabilities, she’s also helping to alter beauty standards in a huge way.
With her historic win, Kaliegh defied stereotypical views of what a beauty queen should look like by the way she rocked her hair. Taking the stage with a gorgeously coifed, curly ‘fro, she shattered notions that the only way to win a crown was to straighten your own. “When I was younger, I always competed with straight hair. I had my hair chemically treated when I was 6 years old. Four years ago was when I started transitioning to my natural hair,” she says. “Having straight hair was my normal until I was able to figure out how to take care of my natural hair myself. I recognized that having curly hair makes me unique and it’s beautiful and professional.”
During her natural hair journey, Kaliegh relied a lot on YouTube tutorials, getting through the transition process by learning how to braid and twist her hair. “There was a long period of time, because I was transitioning for about a year before I did a big chop, where I had two different textures. I had curly hair roots and damaged straight ends that were there. I did a lot of twist-outs, so [I could have] one cohesive wave to my hair.”
It’s those lessons and tips she still holds onto today, even during competitions. “When I compete, I like my hair being a lot more defined than it usually is, so I will finger curl my hair in the shower,” she shares. “A lot of the times it can be frizzy and not feel moisturized because it’s all over the place, so I like finger coiling it. When I’m about to go on stage, I’ll pick it out so there’s more shape and body to it.”
There’s something about seeing a crown on top of a Black girl with curly hair that is so beautiful because of its rarity, yet realness. “I think it shows how far we’ve come in the pageantry world. It shows that beauty standards are changing,” Kaliegh says. “I imagine myself being younger and seeing these women of color winning these national titles. It’s something that has inspired me, even being a part of it.”
She also hopes people realize there’s no one-size-fits-all to being beautiful. “You can have the darkest skin tone. You can have the lightest skin tone. You can have straight blonde hair. You can have 4C black hair, and it’s all beautiful,” she says.
As Miss Teen USA, Kaliegh hopes to spread as much love and positivity as possible and believes that in today’s society, there are too many people who are down on themselves about their looks or who are basing their worthiness on those around them. She wants to show everyone it doesn’t matter how big or small your contribution to this life is because you are still making an impact and a difference in the world.