Haley Begay stood next to Grace Haase, holding hands, on the Miss Indiana pageant stage. They waited to hear a name announced – the name of the first runner up.
“You don’t want to hear your name,” Begay said. So when it was Haase’s name announced, Haley’s mouth dropped open. She had just become the 78th Miss Indiana at 19 years old.
Begay, a native of the tiny town of Pittsboro, Indiana, has been competing in pageants since she was 11 years old. She’d always looked up to older competitors in competitions like Miss Indiana, not believing that she was capable of making it to that level.
“I never thought that was a tangible dream until last week,” she said.
After winning a local pageant and being crowned Miss Metropolitan, Begay received her “golden ticket” to join 35 women in competing at Miss Indiana for her second time. There, she won preliminary competitions in the swimsuit, interview and talent categories (Begay sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” for her talent portion).
In addition to her awarded titles, she received a scholarship of $10,000 for winning Miss Indiana and became eligible for numerous other scholarships at local, state and national level.
The Miss America pageant is the largest provider of scholarships to young women in the world, said Marni Lemons, public relations director for the Miss Indiana Scholarship Pageant.
And although the Miss America pageant helps young women financially, in some cases allowing contestants to graduate college debt-free, one of the biggest rewards they take away is their personal growth.
“Miss Indiana really encourages young women to learn their own minds and really get to know themselves,” Lemons said. “They develop such confidence, poise and the ability to speak.”
Begay will be one of the youngest contestants at the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City in September, where the median age of the contestants is 22. She’s nervous, but also confident about the edge her age gives her. In her Miss Indiana interview, she argued that her young age gives her the advantage of versatility.
“I’m young enough to connect to a younger crowd. Teenagers feel comfortable coming up to me,” she said. “But I’m mature enough to talk to the governor of Indiana.”
Still, she’s had to do a lot of growing in the aftermath of Miss Indiana. The morning after her crowning, Begay was up at 5 a.m. to do press appearances. She’s bounced from meeting to appearance since then, maintaining her social media presence the entire time.
In the months leading up to the Miss America competition, she’ll have to balance appearances at events and volunteering hours with preparing for the competition’s talent, on-stage question, interview and swimsuit categories.
The demanding schedule of being Miss Indiana means that Begay has decided to take a year off of school at IU. She’ll return for her sophomore year next year, she said.
“I wanted the full experience of Miss Indiana and Miss America,” she said.
She’s grateful for the opportunities she was able to experience in her freshman year at IU, though. In a single year at IU, she served as the service chair of pageantry at IU and helped organize and emceed the Miss IU pageant. She also began work on her Media School major with a focus in broadcast news, a Spanish major and psychology minor.
In September, she hopes to break the top 15 at Miss America, and along the way, connect with as many people as possible. For Begay, the Miss Indiana crown is an “opportunity to inspire and show your love for Hoosiers.”
She will also use the title as a platform to advance her work on combating domestic violence. Charity work is a major component of competing at Miss Indiana. Each contestant selects a platform, which she then does work for throughout the year. The contestants undergo a on-stage question in which they answer questions about their platforms.
Haley’s chosen platform was “Don’t Silence the Violence: Domestic Violence.” She’s also created her own charity called “Domestic Dollars,” and she volunteers at Middleway House in Bloomington and Sheltering Wings in Pittsboro. She hopes that her Miss Indiana title will allow her to get involved in the Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Abuse.
“Your crown is a megaphone,” she said. “People look at you when you have a crown on your head.”
That crown has four points on it – scholarship, service, style and success.
Begay said she hopes to exemplify all those qualities, but do so while remaining authentically herself. She’s had people try to change her by suggesting she get hair and eyelash extensions – not that Begay sees anything wrong with these things. They’re just not her.
“I’m not going to win as someone I’m not,” she said. “There’s no reason to be nervous because you already know everything there is to know about yourself.”
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