Miss Washington on poverty, gay marriage and Toddlers & TiarasJanuary 31, 2012 @ 5:39 pm (Updated: 10:24 am - 2/1/12 )
What is it like to be on a national stage, competing against other gorgeous women, hoping your talent and beauty will stand out, then suddenly hearing the dream is over?
Miss Washington, Brittney Henry, was not picked as a semi-finalist in the Miss America pageant. Miss Wisconsin, Laura Kaeppeler, won the crown.
I sat down with Henry to talk about everything from pageant tears and poverty to same-sex marriage and the reality show "Toddlers & Tiaras."
The high-energy scene in Las Vegas a few weeks ago began, as is the tradition, with contestants introducing themselves.
"From the state that brought you Starbucks, you're welcome, I'm Brittney Henry, Miss Washington."
With her long blonde hair, perfect body, and sparkling smile, Brittney stood with equally stunning young women from every other state wondering, will I be a finalist?
"It's so nerve-racking. Your stomach is in a knot just waiting and it's on live TV so that heightens all the emotions," she says.
When Brittney's name was not called, she was "numb."
"I was sad, but I still had a big smile on my face," says Henry. "I was able to accept it, but there were a lot of girls up there with me who were crying and I was able to say to them 'hold it together, we're on national TV.'"
Holding it together has become Henry's specialty. It's something she learned growing up poor in Pierce County. She was raised in Edgewood, which was an affluent area, but her family didn't have any money. She saw other kids around her had nice clothing. She did not. When they talked about expensive things they were going to do or buy, she just listened and "learned how to hide" her financial situation.
By high school, she had become an expert at blending in. She was quiet and never spoke up for herself, even when her friends in class discussed the "leeches on the welfare system," not knowing Henry was "only able to survive" because of food stamps.
That wasn't all she was hiding. She was failing classes too. She took algebra three times.
"In one instance I failed because there was a domestic violence issue happening in my house the night before the final," says Henry. "I held my baby sister in the closet while we called 9-1-1. I didn't sleep at all that night, I showed up to school the next day, tried to act normal, and failed the test."
There are 40,000 Brittney Henrys in Washington today. 40,000 children living in poverty in our state. Even though she didn't become Miss America, she will continue talking to teachers about the impact being poor has on a student's ability to learn. She also talks to students, telling them they don't have to live in shame, with a lack of confidence, like she did.
Henry has a bright future, and has already inspired her mother to complete a nursing degree. Her baby sister is now a teenager and she has another sister who's a teacher in West Seattle. Henry's father died of a crystal meth drug overdose two years ago.
"I never dreamed of big things for my life or becoming anything special," she says.
Although Brittney didn't make it to the final round on the Miss America pageant, when a judge asks a controversial question that forces the young women to think on their feet, I decided to put her on the spot.
The Washington State Legislature is expected to pass a bill allowing same-sex couples to legally marry. Do you support the law?
"I'm pro-equality and equal opportunity for all people. I believe that marriage is one of those issues that should be a legal right granted to all citizens regardless of their sexual orientation," she responds.
Now, a pop culture question. The TV reality show "Toddlers & Tiaras" follows the world of child beauty pageants, showing how moms and dads prepare girls for glitz competitions. In order to compete the girls, some as young as a few months old, wear expensive dresses, wigs, false teeth called flippers, and spray tans. What do you think of these pageants?
"I think it's really sad. I would never put my children in a situation like that," Henry says. "Toddlers and Tiaras is way over the top and I think those pageants can really effect the girls' body image and self-esteem in a negative way."
Brittney Henry played the Celtic fiddle in the recent Miss America competition and had the highest talent score for a non-finalist, which earned her a scholarship from the Miss America organization.
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