Do you ever wonder what goes on behind the scenes of a beauty pageant? How about what it is like through the lens of a contestant? Maybe you think you know all about pageants from watching Miss Congeniality. Sure, there is the glamorous side to the pageantry world, but there is also the side that—let’s face it—most of us will never get (or want) to experience: the steadfast commitments, the emotional and physical toll, the personal and financial investment, and the aftermath of adjusting to a normalcy that you long ago gave up for a shot at the title.
Back home in San Antonio after competing in the Miss USA pageant held in Reno, Nevada, on May 2, 2019, Miss Texas USA 2019 Alayah Benavidez sat down with me to reflect on highlights and behind-the-scenes secrets. If you hold narrow assumptions about the pageantry world, stay tuned—because Miss Texas USA is about to shatter those assumptions as she gives us a glimpse of what the Miss USA experience was like for her.
Nikki (me): Hi, Miss Texas USA 2019! How does it feel to be back?
Alayah: I’m so happy to be home, but I’m still getting into the groove of things. It feels great to be back; I’ve missed Texas.
N: What has the support from the San Antonio community meant for you throughout the whole process?
A: Pride is something that runs deep in Texas, but the pride in San Antonio is immense. To have had the support from my “home” city was incredibly encouraging. The support made me that much prouder to represent this great city and got me through some rough patches. I’ll always be grateful to this place I call home.
N: So, I am so curious to know- what was the first non-restrictive thing you ate after the pageant ended?
A: I ate pizza, but I really wanted hot wings from Wing Stop!
N: People, including myself, have many assumptions about the pageantry world. Alayah, what do you want people to know about Miss USA or pageants in general?
A: People have this assumption about pageants… They might think [the contestants] are catty, objectifying, or women who need validation. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s kind of like…a sorority in terms of how we feel about one another. It’s a sisterhood in that we all hold each other up in respect and love. When Cheslie won the title, we were as happy for her as we would have been for ourselves if we had won. We were all very excited for her. We lift one another up, respect and love one another, and celebrate one another’s successes.
N: Having been exposed to the pageantry world for several years, in particular Miss USA, is there anything you would change about the experience?
A: An important layer to the pageant are fans. They play a critical role in supporting us contestants. Having said that, the fans can sometimes unintentionally create an illusion of cattiness and rivalry. So, for example, they create polls and encourage fans to “vote for Miss Texas USA or Miss Georgia USA.” What then follows is this array of commentary around why one is better than the other. Those types of things are negative because they create misconceptions of a rivalry or one girl being better than the other. This has unintended consequences.
Many pageant contestants stopped following certain fan accounts or social media accounts, or removed the social media apps completely so that we did not have to see this hyper-analysis from the fans. Of course we are competitors, but we are not rivals. Yes, we ask to be judged and are in the spotlight, but we are not asking to be pitted against one another. Criticizing my pageant sister’s dress is the same at taking a stab at me because I love her. Even though we are public figures, we are humans and have emotional and visceral reactions to these things. This is one thing I would change about the pageant world: the scrutiny and negativity.
N: Do you still keep in touch with the Miss USA contestants?
A: Yes! We have a group text message going and to this day we still message each other. Miss Alaska won the first state title and started the group message. As title holders won for their state, Miss Alaska would add those girls to the group. I was added to the group on the same day that Miss Illinois was added because we both won our state’s pageant the same day.
N: What did your eating and workout regimen look like while preparing for the pageant?
A: My meals mainly consisted of chicken breast and lots of veggies with little to no carbs. As far as my workout, I did 5:00 A.M. cardio and then engaged in some type of strength training in the evenings. Lifting weights and doing Pure Barre were great for strength training!
N: What were some highlights of the Miss USA pageant for you?
A: It was surreal getting to actually meet the girls in person after following each other for so long. I formed strong relationships with all of the girls, particularly Miss New Hampshire USA, Miss California USA, and Miss South Dakota USA. I would say the other highlight was feeling like such a celebrity the whole time!
N: What were you surprised to learn during your Miss USA pageant experience?
A: I think I was pleasantly surprised by how very helpful the former Miss Texas USA winners were in walking me through the experience of the pageant and helping me to become familiar with the processes at Miss USA prior to arrival. They were so supportive.
I was also surprised to learn how quarantined the contestants had to be. The organization rules were rather strict about us not stopping to talk to or take photos with people while going from event to event and staying in a group. We had full security detail around us at all times. Contestants had family members come all the way to Reno for added support, but we could not see them except at designated family breaks, which were only about 5–10 minutes a day, although we were able to speak to them on the phone and see them through FaceTime.
Another little-known fact is that the shoes we wear during the competition are not given to us in advance. We don’t get to wear, break them in, or try them on. We are each given the shoes at the show before we walk the stage. They set this expectation for cosmetic reasons, so the shoes don’t get scuffed or marked up, but it makes it super difficult as a contestant to walk on stage for the first time in a new pair of shoes you’ve never worn before.
N: Describe what a typical day was like for you and the rest of the Miss USA contestants.
A: Even though I had a memorable experience, it would get pretty grueling because we were always on the go. One night we got back to the hotel at 11:00 P.M., after being up since 5:00 A.M. Schedules are given to you the day before, but they’re vague. For example, [the schedule might say] “full hair and makeup and ready to go by 7:00 A.M.,” but it wouldn’t provide much detail for what the day would bring. One day we had to be in full hair and makeup by 6:30 A.M., which means waking up at 4:00 A.M. and then being constantly on the go until we got back to the hotel, some nights past 11:00 P.M. We had to do it all over again the next day.
N: What happens to all of the gowns and other items you wore at Miss USA?
A: [Laughs] I am keeping the Sherri Hill red gown that I wore on stage! I’m also keeping the swimsuit and our opening number outfit. I’m a very sentimental person. I want to be able to show my grandkids all the memorabilia from when I took the Miss USA stage!
N: In terms of expense, tell us about the investment you made in your journey to Miss USA.
A: People think that contestants have to pay for the gowns, swimsuits, shoes, and accessories, but these are all gifted. Hair and makeup are all sponsored and gifted to me by the businesses who sponsor the state pageant. What becomes expensive is having to purchase the outfits for rehearsals. We were told to bring up to three changes per day while we were there. This also leads to expensive airport baggage fees to fly to Reno. Some girls had to pay up to $600 for baggage fees alone. Remember, we had to pack for our three-week stay, which meant lots of bags. I had a total of six suitcases. My sponsors are in Houston, so I had to take time off work and drive to and from Houston. Being on a restrictive diet also meant having to eat certain foods, which can also be expensive. Then, of course, there’s the expense my whole family had to incur of traveling to Reno and staying at the resort to support me. Yes, it has all been expensive, but we would do it all over again!
N: What would you tell little girls looking to embark on this journey?
A: I would tell them that it is worth it; it will help shape you and your confidence. Just remember that there will be people who don’t agree with you or will tear you down and you have to be OK with it. Do not let it discourage you. Do it for your own reasons and the people who support you. You are not doing it for the people who criticize, so don’t listen to those people.
N: If you could go back and talk to a younger version of yourself, what would you tell her?
A: I faced a lot of isolation and feeling that I wasn’t worthy when I was younger. I had dyslexia. I was not outgoing or popular, and I felt very alone. I never felt like I would be someone. If I could go back I would tell myself, “You’re not alone. Everything you’re experiencing now is setting you to be independent later. In a few years, you’ll be Miss Texas USA and do so many impactful things. These moments will not define you. Just hold on, and don’t be discouraged.”
N: Is that why you’ve adopted a literacy initiative?
A: Yes. I’m dyslexic and I didn’t understand that when I was in [my early years of] school. I wasn’t diagnosed until high school. I loved reading, but English class was difficult for me and I didn’t understand why. [My] Read the Way [campaign] is a way to communicate with my community that reading is important. It leads to improved mental health and affects poverty and crime rates. Reading has such a profound domino effect on our society. If a child is not reading on grade level by the third grade, their chance of ever graduating from high school decreases sharply. Seventy-five percent of inmates are illiterate. Literacy matters, and it affects children’s outcomes.
N: What’s in store for you now?
A: Well, I’m already enrolled at UTSA for fall, and I am still working at an orthodontics office. My mother, sister, and I have launched an online boutique called The Three Bees, named after each of us, the three Benavidez gals. My mom is the Boss Bee, I’m the Queen Bee, and my little sister is the Honey Bee! This venture is pretty important to me because it combines my love of fashion with my passion for giving back to the community that has supported me. Ten percent of all proceeds go toward literacy initiatives in our community.