Kaliegh Garris is crowned the new Miss Teen USA at the Grand Sierra Resort and Casino’s Grand Theatre on Sunday, April 28. Photo Credit: Benjamin Askinas

She was crowned Miss Connecticut Teen USA 2019 in January, giving her the right to compete for Miss Teen USA 2019. Now, the second Connecticut native to have been crowned Miss Teen USA (Logan West was crowned Miss Teen USA in 2012), Kaliegh Garris is still astounded from her win on Sunday.

We got to talk to the 18-year-old pageant queen and philanthropist about what’s been buzzing around her all week. What was it like winning? Where is she going next?

Well, believe it or not, it all started with a shy little girl. Talking to Kaliegh on the phone or watching her on stage, you would never know that she has so much as hesitated to respond to any question thrown at her, but it’s actually pageantry that gave her incredible public speaking skills. But trying to become better at public speaking wasn’t what drew her to pageant life and set her on track to become Miss Teen USA 2019.

Kaliegh Garris, Miss Connecticut TEEN USA 2019, is announced as a Top 15 finalist in fashion by Sherri Hill and footwear by Lauren Lorraine during the MISS TEEN USA® Competition at Grand Sierra Resort and Casino’s (GSR) Grand Theatre on Sunday, April 28. Photo Credit: Patrick Prather

“I watched Miss USA on TV growing up every year,” she said. Her family would make an event out of watching the competition, setting up food and gathering around the TV. “Those were the women I looked up to, and I envisioned myself as one of them.” Even more, Kaliegh connected with the Miss USA/Miss Teen USA slogan, “confidently beautiful.” Being able to stand on a stage as herself and under an organization that is a major proponent of the importance of education, something Kaliegh also values, sealed the deal.

“It was one of my goals to just get onto that actual stage.”

When she started out, Kaliegh and her mom had a rule: one pageant a year. Being from a small town in Iowa, her mom wasn’t accustomed to the world of pageants. No makeup, no dramatics. Kaliegh competed in natural pageants that focused on being yourself and featured Kaliegh’s favorite part of the competition, the interview portion—this is where she developed those master-level public speaking skills. “As I grew up, I learned about the Miss Universe organization, and it was one of my goals to just get onto that actual stage,” she told us, “and winning Miss Connecticut and finally being able to be on the Miss Teen USA stage was a dream come true.”

Photo Credit: Patrick Prather

Now, Kaliegh’s mom is, she says, undoubtedly her biggest supporter. Describing the final moments of the Miss Teen USA competition, Kaliegh said, “I was so focused on reading the announcer’s mouth to figure out who they were going to say… So, when I heard Connecticut being called, I freaked out, and I actually turned and I yelled, ‘Mom!’” She doesn’t attribute her win to her own hard work alone, she described a moment where she found her mom in the audience, in that split second of eye contact before Kaliegh accepted her crown, she was thinking “Look what we did.” “I was so excited just to see her hard work and my hard work had paid off,” she said.

The Miss Teen USA crown wasn’t the only crown Kaliegh was wearing. Throughout the competition, she made the choice to compete with her natural, curly hair.  This was part of her own journey to embrace the “confidently beautiful” slogan even though people had warned her against competing with her natural hair.

“Now, I can’t envision having my hair any other way.”

“Growing up, I wasn’t always confident wearing my natural hair,” she said. “I tell people, I don’t even remember a time when I had natural hair growing up just because I started straightening it when I was so young.” Going into pageantry, Kaliegh only saw a few girls that competed with their natural hair. She wasn’t seeing herself represented on stage, so she became that representation. “I’ve had many people reach out to say that they have biracial kids that now have someone to look up to that they didn’t necessarily have somebody to look up to before that looked like them.”

Embracing the role of role model isn’t easy. “Like I said, a lot of people have been reaching out saying that I’ve been a role model which is kind of weird because I’m just me,” she said. Friends at school, where Kaliegh is finishing up her senior year, ask her what it feels like now that she’s won the title and the crown, but she says, “I’m still myself.” That doesn’t mean she’s taking it lightly, though. “It’s definitely a big sense of responsibility, knowing that I have younger people and just others, in general, looking at me as a role model and being somebody that represents them.” One of her favorite things about her new responsibility is meeting the people that she inspires. She talked about meeting people that recognize her on the street and talking with them about having natural, curly hair. They say that “it has shown them that they are beautiful too.”

Photo Courtesy of Kaliegh Garris

Kaliegh is a dancer, too. In fact, she was on her way to Showstopper’s Mashantucket Regionals not long after she accepted her crown as Miss Teen USA. She even attributes part of her success in pageantry to dance. “I wouldn’t have even really started anything unless it was for dance,” she said. “I started dance before I started pageantry, and it’s what first allowed me to really express myself.” Getting up on stage to perform for dance helped her climb those pageant stages a little more confidently because she was used to being in the spotlight for dance.

Photo Courtesy of Kaliegh Garris

Now, Kaliegh is back from the Miss Teen USA competition. She said she is focused on finishing up her senior year and her high school career. After that? Kaliegh wants to pursue a career in the medical field. She is already set to attend Southern Connecticut State University to major in nursing—right now her goal is to become a nurse anesthetist. But she also wants to travel and continue with dance, so she’s seeing what’s to come.

To anyone that dreams of following in her footsteps, she recommends looking up to your role models for inspiration, but not for a blueprint of how you should go about your life. “You can’t fixate on everything that they do because you have to do it in your own way,” she said. “I say that specifically for volunteer work because a lot of teens especially think ‘Oh, volunteering is so much work, and I don’t like doing it,’ but it’s really about finding something you love doing and sharing it with somebody else.”

“I really had to… realize I can’t compare myself to anybody else because we’re all uniquely ourselves, and that we have to just show who we are.”

Kaliegh herself volunteers with organizations like the Special Olympics, Best Buddies International, and puts time into her own charity organization We Are People First. “I started We Are People First because I have a sister with multiple disabilities, and growing up, I would see people not treat her fairly just because she’s in a wheelchair and because she can’t speak, can’t speak like you and I can, and so, my sister is my normal, that’s what I grew up with,” she told us.

“Realizing that the average person doesn’t have a personal relationship with someone with disabilities, it is something that I feel people needed to understand, so I go to elementary schools and my high school and other high schools and I teach students about People First language which is basically putting the person before their disability and recognizing who the person is before kind of getting caught up in their disability. A good example is, instead of saying, ‘the autistic boy,’ you say ‘the boy with autism.’ It’s not really about his disability, it’s about himself because he is a person. When I go to elementary schools, I use cartoon examples of maybe standing and somebody in a wheelchair and I ask who can go on a rollercoaster, and I explain both can. Like, yes, they may have to get on it a little bit differently, but they can still do the same things that I can do and other people can do.”

Watch Kaliegh’s crowning moment:

We’ll be keeping up with Kaliegh in the future. Who knows, we might even see her on the Miss USA or even Miss Universe stage someday. For now, she is focused on representing her current crown and being the thing that inspired her in the first place, uniquely beautiful. “Being able to represent the class of 2019 is really an honor because all the girls are so amazing and the outcome could have been different any other day. And that any of the girls that were competing could have been and would have been an amazing representation of Miss Teen USA.”