From Runner-up To Titleholder by K. Lee Graham

The first time I watched Miss South Carolina Teen USA I was only 6 years old. And since then I wanted be that girl left at the end, crowned as the new titleholder. I wasn't counting the days until I could compete, I was counting years! That said, you can understand my excitement when I was called into the top five last year in the 2013 pageant. I felt like my dream might actually come true, and then...I was called as the fourth runner up. Of course I was so happy to make it that far. I was honored to stand beside some of the most incredible young women I've ever met, including the winner and my good friend, Tori Sizemore, whom I absolutely adore, but I would be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed. I had worked so hard and came so close, only to fall just short of my goal. That night I made the decision to spend the following year working harder than I ever had before so that I could go into the 2014 pageant with no regrets. And that's exactly what I did.

photo by Carter Studios

photo by Carter Studios

After reflecting on my 2013 preparation and performance, I realized my problem wasn't that I wasn't working hard, it's that I wasn't working efficiently. I was devoting so much energy to some things but not enough to aspects of competition that I needed to improve in. So I made some changes. Yes, my workouts and meal plan changed, but what really set this year apart from last was a change in my mental preparation. Rather than just sit around wishing I would win and memorizing answers to countless interview questions, I focused on finding my purpose and reason for why I wanted to win, visualized my performance in every aspect of competition, and learned to control my nerves.

Erika Grace Powell, Miss SC USA 2012, shared with the 2013 pageant contestants a statement that has been my anthem all year:

"Today it's a pageant, tomorrow it's an opportunity."

While trying to find my purpose I asked myself what kinds of opportunities I wanted to have and what I wanted to do with them. I began by reflecting on the most important lessons I've learned, what I wished I had taken to heart when I was younger, what was most important for me to share, and what would be applicable to the audience I would have as Miss SC Teen USA. Based on my experience throughout elementary and middle school with self-esteem and self-image, I created the Live Beautifully campaign that shares what I've learned and lived since. I encourage girls to find true beauty by embracing themselves, embracing others, and embracing their communities. Finding my purpose made Miss SC Teen USA so much more than just a pageant for me, it became a ministry. I found something to work for that was higher than myself.

photo by Carter Studios

photo by Carter Studios

Another key step in my new preparation plan was visualizing myself competing in every phase of competition. I frequently would imagine myself onstage, creating images of stage lights, judges, and an audience that would be my view during onstage competition, but I also imagined what I would look like from the judges' perspectives. In doing so, I was able to see myself rising to the standard of performance I wanted to reach. And of course, I visualized what it would be like to be crowned. This served as a great motivator when I started to get tired. When I was left standing with Blythe, Miss Charleston Teen USA, at the end of the pageant it was definitely a déjà vu moment!

After visualizing myself doing well during the entire competition, I felt as if I really did before pageant weekend even started. This greatly assisted me in learning to control my nerves, which had impeded me from performing naturally onstage last year. I couldn't even put a genuine smile on my face because I was so nervous! I had never had a problem like that, so I didn't know to prepare for it. By anticipating these feelings I was able to calm myself down before pageant weekend even began. I learned to channel my nerves to benefit me. Instead of denying what I was feeling, I would admit to myself that I was nervous, but then would remind myself that I had prepared to the best of my ability and at that point the outcome was out of my hands. Thinking like this allowed me to enjoy every moment of the weekend, even the 'dreaded' onstage question!

Trying to describe the moments before crowning is still difficult because it truly felt as if I was in a dream. I just remember standing on that stage with the rest of the top 5, so honored and thankful to be there. The whole year I had been working towards that moment, and as the emcee called each runner up all I could do was pray that whatever happened would work out for the best.

photo from K. Lee's Instagram

photo from K. Lee's Instagram

And then there were two…

Charleston Teen USA and I were the only girls left. When they called the name of the first runner up, and it wasn't me, my mouth just dropped and stayed that way for quite awhile! I was just ecstatic to finally be Miss SC Teen USA! So to all of you girls that have walked away from a pageant disappointed, use that experience to identify your weaknesses and create a plan to make them into your strengths. Maybe you need to use a strategy like mine? Maybe you have different things to improve upon? Just don't give up! Because when you work hard, prepare efficiently, and have faith then anything is possible!

For more on me and the Live Beautifully campaign visit and follow me on Twitter and Instagram @RealMissSCTeen.

K. Lee Graham

Miss South Carolina Teen USA 2014