The newly-minted Miss Teen USA Kaleigh Garris gives “crown” a new name. When the 18-year-old Connecticut teen won the title on Sunday, the tiara was placed atop her halo of naturally-textured hair. As Garris told Refinery29 in an exclusive interview published Tuesday, it was a choice that garnered “a few naysayers” who advised straightening and extensions, but may ultimately have given her the winning edge.
“The night before, I finger curled every single piece of my hair in the shower, which led to a very long shower, but it was for the greater good,” Garris told the site. “I know what I look like with straight hair, with extensions, and with my curly hair, and I feel more confident and comfortable with my natural hair.”
The young beauty queen, who is a competitive dancer and theater major, is the first Miss Teen USA since 1999 winner Ashley Coleman to forgo the blowout in favor of her natural texture. As Refinery29 notes, more recently, Miss USA 2016 Deshauana Barber made headlines when she chose to wear her natural hair during her final walk—a choice that reportedly sparked considerable backlash, along with her darker skin tone. Speaking with Refinery29 in 2017, Barber reflected on her groundbreaking win:
When you’re crowned with a look, then that’s the look you’re expected to maintain. A lot of people in the pageant world are still very old school. They believe in a traditional look, a traditional Miss USA. [The organization] is trying to, in my opinion, open up that world.
So, when I said I wanted to wear my natural hair, they were jumping for joy. I appreciate them for that ... If I take a small [step] by showing my natural 4c hair, the next girl will take one, and then we’ll ease our natural hairstyles into the pageant community. Because in all honesty, I don’t think that the pageant community is ready for a braided-up Miss USA.
Now similarly in a position many consider a role model to young girls, Garris is equally aware of the impact of her choice.
“As Miss Connecticut Teen USA, there are girls who would look at me in awe because they’ve always had the image of straight hair in pageants,” she said. “Being able to spread the message of diversity, being yourself, and being confident in your curly, natural hair is something that I’m really looking forward to with my new national title.”
Nevertheless, Garris’ hair journey included coming to embrace her natural texture after a childhood of straightening to mimic her friends’ “straight, ‘pretty’ hair.” Ironically, it was ultimately a compliment from a friend that ultimately led her to “the big chop.”
“There was one day when my friend saw my curls coming in from my roots because I didn’t straighten my hair very well that day, and she was like, ‘You have beautiful curly hair, you should go natural,” she said. “I actually chopped all the straight ends off, and ever since then, I’ve been natural.”
Clearly, going natural is proving a winning choice for Garris, who joyfully (and tearfully) accepted her crown. “I wouldn’t change my hairstyle for the world,” she said.