Miss Teen USA Kaliegh Garris Takes the Crown

Eighteen-year-old Kaliegh Garris leads a normal teenage life, attending high school (she just finished her senior year), studying theater, and performing as competitive dancer--that is when she’s not fulfilling her duties as Miss Teen USA. On April 28th, 2019, Garris--formerly Miss Connecticut Teen USA--was announced as the winner of the renowned beauty pageant, making history as one of three black winners that took home the MISS USA®, MISS AMERICA®, and MISS TEEN USA® titles, a first in pageant history. Additionally, Garris decided to wear her natural curls on stage, the first time in 20 years a contestant with natural hair has been crowned. The New Haven native also made headlines for her powerful response to the onstage interview question about why women are less motivated by money: “Because they have the confidence in themselves to know that they are enough. They know that no matter how much money they have, they’re still successful being themselves and that no matter who they talk to, what experiences they have, [or] what jobs they have, they’re still successful, and they’re still empowered in themselves.” Today, the teen practices female empowerment in her own right, as she continues to raise awareness for her movement We Are People 1st, which she started in honor of her older sister who has disabilities. The program enlightens others on ways to respectfully speak to individuals with health conditions and disabilities, and Garris was even acknowledged for her work by the Department of Disabled Services. Get to know the teen as she discusses her pageantry journey (full disclosure: it’s not just about the crown).

When did you first become interested in pageantry? What about it appealed to you the most?

One of my older sisters, Samantha, used to compete in pageants when I was younger. It turned out that pageants really weren’t her thing, but when I saw her on stage, I fell in love with them. I had to convince my mom to let me compete in them because she’s from a small town in Iowa and she’s more of a sports girl. She finally let me start competing in natural pageants--where contestants could not wear makeup--when I was 8 years old. Pageantry really helped me come out of my shell because I was a bit shy when I was younger and usually kept to myself. Of course, when you’re younger you see girls on stage and are in awe of their beauty, but as I’ve grown older, the appeal of pageantry has expanded to the fact of being among empowering women and showing others that we are educated and can impact the world.

What’s one thing that you believe people misunderstand about being a beauty queen?

I think that many people believe pageantry objectifies women, which is totally untrue. Pageantry promotes confidence, sisterhood, and both positive and respectable role models to young girls as they grow up. When I was growing up, I would always watch MISS TEEN USA®, MISS USA®, and MISS UNIVERSE®, and I would be in awe of how confident and empowered the women competing were. Those are the women that helped encourage me to be my true self and be proud of who I am.

How did you prepare for Miss Teen USA?

After being crowned Miss Connecticut Teen USA, I had an amazing support system behind me at all times. My questions were always answered, and I always knew that I had people around me that would support me and allow me to be myself. I always had the final say when it came to my outfits and hairstyle for the competition. Everyone was supportive in allowing me to be me, and they would always give me words of encouragement.

How did you decide which gown to wear?

When I went to Sherri Hill’s showroom in Texas, I had no idea what I was looking for. Sherri Hill has been one of my favorite designers ever since I could remember, so I was really just in shock that I was able to go and meet her. At the start of the fitting, they pulled some gowns for me to try on. When I put on my pink chiffon gown, I knew that it was the one I was going to wear. It’s kind of hard to explain since it’s something that I wouldn’t have imagined myself wearing--I’m used to always wearing some sort of ball gown. But when I put on that dress, I knew that it was the one that I was going to wear on the MISS TEEN USA® stage.

What differentiates you from your fellow contestants?

My hair, but most importantly, my personality. Many have told me that they loved the fact that I was true to myself and didn’t try to hide my quirkiness and large smile.

What was the most challenging part of being a competitor?

The hardest thing about competing in pageants is getting out of your own head, especially at MISS TEEN USA® when you are competing against the best of the best in the country. You know that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and you don’t want to mess it up. But at some point during the week, I just had to tell myself that it was amazing I had made it that far, and no matter the outcome, I would proud of myself.

What was your favorite part of competing?

I would say my favorite part about competing was the interview. Although I can get nervous, I just have to get out of my head and remind myself that the judges are trying to get to know me and pick the best representative for the title. I think it’s fun when I’m able to get a joke in to show the judges my personality. Interviews are the first time the judges actually get to meet you, so I always want to leave a lasting impression.

What was going through your mind when you were announced the winner?

Well, right before they announced the winner, I remember saying in my head, “please, please, please,” but I also felt as though they were taking a long time to announce who it was. They had a camera rotating around me and Miss North Dakota Teen USA. There was actually a point where we looked at each other and laughed because we were both very nervous and it was taking so long. But we were both so appreciative of how far we came to be the final two standing.  

How do you plan on using your title to raise awareness for your organization, We Are People 1st?

I already go to schools within my state and talk to classrooms about the proper way to use people first language. Throughout my reign as Miss Teen USA, I plan on expanding We Are People 1st to a national scale by traveling to different states to discuss my platform. I also plan on continuing to volunteer with organizations such as Best Buddies and the Special Olympics.

Any other plans as Miss Teen USA?

I am a senior in high school, so first and foremost, I’m focusing on my education and graduating high school. In the fall, I will be attending Southern Connecticut State University, where I’m going to major in nursing. My reign as Miss Teen USA is only a year long, so I’m looking forward to taking every opportunity I have while holding this title.

This or That:

Curly or straight hair? Curly hair, duh!

Gowns or mini dresses? Mini dresses.

Sequins or rhinestones? Rhinestones.

Netflix or live TV? Netflix.

Sushi or pizza? Pizza.

Follow Kaliegh on Social Media:

Instagram: @kalieghgarris

Twitter: @kalieghgarris