Connecticut’s own Kaliegh Garris: Sister, future nurse, and history-making Miss Teen USA
In an interview with the Courant’s new platform for millennials, The Thread, Miss Teen USA 2019 Kaliegh Garris talks about her childhood tendencies, her family influences, and what keeps her going every day. Whether it’s rejecting others’ advice or reminding herself to stay confident, this New Haven native has worked hard to get to where she is now — all while being herself.
A graduating senior at both Joseph A. Foran High School in Milford and ACES Educational Center for the Arts in New Haven, Kaliegh has big dreams of becoming a nurse, staying in Connecticut for a while, and who knows what else? This is only the beginning.
The 18-year-old made headlines after winning the title of Miss Teen USA last month — and not just because of her strong answer to a question about why women are less motivated by money. No pressure, right?
Not only was she one of three black winners that took home the Miss USA, Miss America and Miss Teen USA crowns — a first in pageant history — but Kaliegh wore her natural hair on stage. That’s right: A biracial pageant contestant wore her natural curls in a competition where straightened hair is the standard of beauty — and won.
It’s the first time in 20 years a contestant with natural hair has been crowned. And it’s the first time a contestant with natural hair has been crowned in the Miss Teen USA pageant. Ever.
So what happened next? We caught up with Kaliegh to talk to her about life after the competition. Read through part of our conversation, or listen to the full interview below.
Take us back to the first time you wore your natural hair in a beauty pageant. What was that like?
I wore my hair naturally for the first time at a pageant about two years ago, and it was something very new for me. I had just started wearing my hair naturally and had gotten a big chop, so my hair was finally growing out as it was, curly. And there were some people that were telling me like, ‘oh, maybe you should straighten it.’ But it wasn’t to tear me down. It was really just because that’s what they thought was best. I really had to push out the outside opinions and go with what I was growing into, which was my natural hair. It was really exciting, but nerve wracking at the same time because I knew I would stand out, but in a different way than I had before. That was something I had to learn to be okay with.
I had straightened my hair ever since the age of 6. I would get keratin treatments on it every three months, so my hair just started getting shorter and shorter as time went on, due to heat damage. One day I didn’t straighten my roots very well, and one of my friends with natural hair that had been natural her entire life, she really gave me the confidence to really start thinking about it. She gave me a few YouTubers to look at to try to get more information on it and how I would end up taking care of my hair if I were to go natural.
Why is it important to you to wear your natural hair on stage?
For me, it’s really about being confident within myself, and having my natural hair is what I’ve grown to be 100% comfortable with. I can’t imagine going onstage with straight hair because I don’t feel like it would be a true representation of who I am. I also just feel like there are other girls that aren’t necessarily sure if they should compete with their natural hair, who wear their hair naturally in their regular, daily lives. I really think it shows that you can wear your natural hair, and it is professional, and it is beautiful.
Did you feel any pressure attending a school with mostly white students?
I had gone to a predominantly white school ever since the second grade because I transferred out of New Haven to go to Milford. I wasn’t bullied because of my skin complexion or anything like that, but I would definitely see the difference between me and other kids in my school. To them, I was “the black kid,” because it wasn’t something that they were necessarily used to seeing in their neighborhoods.
I just didn’t feel like I fit in because I wasn’t white enough to be white because I didn’t look white, but I was never black enough to be black, because my complexion isn’t that dark. As I grew up, it was really about figuring out where I belonged. I’ve definitely grown comfortable with being mixed, and being both sides, and having a black father and a white mother.
You’ve obviously chosen your platform to shatter the stereotypes and pressure that women face every day, more specifically, African American women. Some people would say that beauty pageants are counterproductive to that cause. What made you want to compete in pageants?
Growing up, I was always the shy kid. I liked the attention on me, but I didn’t like going for the attention. I would never start a conversation. I would never go up or raise my hand in class because I didn’t enjoy public speaking at all.
Then one day, I convinced my mom and asked her to let me do a pageant. It was all natural — you weren’t allowed to wear any makeup and it was really just about you being you. Ever since then, I did one a year, and it has really helped me with my public speaking skills. Now I’m able to start a conversation and hold a conversation as well.
Did you feel like you were more introverted as a kid?
Definitely. It was just the fact that I would stutter, I still do sometimes. I didn't want to start a conversation with somebody I knew or even like a family member because I knew that I would have to speak for a long period of time, and that wasn't always my favorite thing.
What has been your goal in participating in pageants?
I would say just to really put myself out there, because a lot of the time if you get stuck in your own head, and you really are your biggest competition, because you can get in your head about the other girls you’re competing against. And then you realize that you getting in your head about other girls is what’s going to ruin the competition for you, and you’re not going to be able to have fun and just enjoy the moment. When I was competing at Miss Teen USA, I did get in my head a little bit, and then I thought, ‘I already made it this far. It has been my dream just to get on the Miss Teen USA stage. Just being here is already so amazing.’ I just have to really enjoy the experience because if I get in my head too much, then I’m not going to have fun.
You started the We Are People 1st Organization to educate young people on how to speak respectfully to people with disabilities, in honor of your older sister. Can you tell us how you came to create this movement?
My sisters are eight years older than me. I was always the little sister tagging along with them, and when we would go to the store, I’d realize that families would look at my sister oddly, or mothers would pull their kids away from my sister, and I didn’t understand why. My sister is who I’ve grown up with and what I’m used to. I didn’t realize the average person doesn’t have a personal relationship with somebody with a disability.
I really wanted to break that negative stigma that people with disabilities are ‘scary,’ or ‘they don’t understand you, so what’s the point of even talking to them?’ Because my sister can understand everything I say to her, she thinks all of the jokes that my mom makes are hilarious. I really wanted to break that stigma and educate people and say, ‘Hey, my sister and anybody with disability is just like you and I, and we may have to do stuff a little bit differently, but that doesn’t make it so that we are, we are not equal.’
How do you feel being involved in theater and dance has influenced you over the years?
They really allow me to express myself and sometimes, especially with dance, if I’m not able to express something through words or I’m frustrated or even having fun with my friends, I always just dance because I think it’s a way to get out frustration or any emotion through movement that we wouldn’t necessarily be able to put into words. That has been really helpful. With theater, it has really been like a bonding experience, and really helped me find a community of people that I get along with very well.
Lastly, what advice would you give to any young girls interested in beauty pageants?
I would say go for it and really listen to who you are and how you want to compete. There could be a lot of outside opinions just trying to help you along the way, but you have to really stick with what makes you comfortable and just really be yourself on stage. You can’t compare yourself to anybody because you are the only you.