A Downers Grove South High School junior will spend the next year representing the state as the new Miss Illinois Teen USA.
Grayson Hodgkiss, 16, beat out 77 other girls for the title during a competition held Dec. 2 at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place in Chicago. She'll represent Illinois next year at the national Miss Teen USA competition, which is part of the Donald Trump-owned Miss Universe Organization that also includes the Miss Universe and Miss USA pageants.
Not only was it the first win for Hodgkiss, it was the first time she had competed in a pageant since she was 2 years old.
"It was a total shock," Hodgkiss said. "I went into it just hoping to represent myself and my community well, but I never expected to win. It was an honor just to make the Top 15."
Hodgkiss said she became familiar with the Miss Teen USA competition through watching the Miss Universe pageant with her mom, Amber, who grew up in North Carolina. The family moved to Downers Grove from Maryland six years ago.
"My mom actually competed years ago, so we've always loved watching the pageants together when they're on TV," Grayson Hodgkiss said. "This year we ordered the DVD of Miss Teen USA, and it just seemed like a lot of fun and something I could do."
To prepare for the competition, Hodgkiss spent nearly four months working with pageant coach Christine Fascetta, the current Mrs. Illinois Galaxy. They met through Peaches Boutique in Chicago, where Hodgkiss bought her dresses.
Fascetta helped Hodgkiss prepare for each section of the competition—interview, swimsuit and evening gown.
As a member of the South High dance team and choir, Hodgkiss was already a seasoned performer. However, she was less experienced when it came to interviews and speaking in public.
"Christine and I spent a lot of time doing mock interviews, working on my wardrobe and even perfecting my walk," Hodgkiss said. "She made me feel so confident and prepared that I was actually comfortable by the time I took the stage, even though I was still nervous."
The day before the stage competition, all Miss Illinois Teen USA contestants had private interviews with pageant judges to share their successes, talents and goals. Contestants were scored on their poise, charm and ability to communicate.
During the swimsuit portion, contestants were judged on beauty, figure, physical fitness, stage presence and confidence. Similarly, the evening gown portion focused on grace, poise and overall presentation.
The next day, the final competition featured a group production number and a parade of evening gowns. The semi-finalists again competed in evening gown and swimsuit, and the top five finalists answered an on-stage question.
Although the pageant places some emphasis on physical appearance, Hodgkiss said it was more about self-confidence and the way each contestant presented herself on stage.
"For me, the competition was about being confident in myself, and being able to show that to the judges," Hodgkiss said. "My strategy was to be genuine and enjoy myself, and I think that paid off in the end."
Amber Hodgkiss said it was her daughter's "raw joy" and "pure heart" that set her apart from the rest of the contestants.
"Most of the girls there are great students who are really active in their communities, and many of them had competed before so they were really polished and poised," Amber Hodgkiss said. "I think Grayson had the magic of the first time going for her. She was so natural and so happy to be there, she was glowing."
For winning the competition, Hodgkiss took home a slew of prizes, including a $45,000 scholarship to Lindenwood University in Missouri. She also attended the Miss Universe competition, which aired live from Las Vegas on Wednesday.
Hodgkiss said she was especially excited about the scholarship and leadership opportunities associated with the Miss Teen USA pageant, which is dedicated to partnering with charities around the world and increasing awareness of teen issues.
"One of the reasons I wanted to get involved with the Miss Universe Organization is because it's really about community service and producing great role models for women and girls," Hodgkiss said.
The national competition is slated for July 2013. The pageant will feature contestants from each of the country's 50 states, plus Washington, D.C.
In the coming months, Hodgkiss will make several public appearances as Miss Illinois Teen USA. As a newly minted role model, she hopes to promote several issues that are important to her, including body image.
"It's something a lot of girls struggle with—I know I did," Hodgkiss said. "I just want girls to believe in themselves, and know they are perfect just the way they are."
Hodgkiss also hopes her title will give her more experience for a possible career in broadcast television or communications.
"The whole experience has given me so much confidence, and has made me so much more comfortable speaking in public," Hodgkiss said. "That's what this whole thing is about, being confident in yourself and who you are."
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