Miss Arlington USA 2019 Works to Fight Bullying, Overcome Her Speech Disability

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Whether it was entering a beauty pageant or a 10-day immersive therapy retreat, Arlingtonian Grace Ashi — AKA Miss Arlington USA 2019 — has marked the last year as one of immense personal growth in overcoming her stutter.

“I was born with a speech disability, I wanted to basically put myself in a position where I could grow and I can inspire people who might suffer from a disability they could do it,” said Grace Ashi.

Grace Ashi, who works at Keller Williams realty by day, grew up in Cameroon and Maryland, where her stuttering led to bullying and scared her away from public speaking.

Ashi had a friend in Maryland who had entered a pageant two years ago, and when it was first suggested that she enter the pageant to work on her public speaking, she was largely unfamiliar with the concept. Though she’s always had a great interest in fashion and has her own fashion blog, she thought pageants sounded superficial (although she’s ashamed to admit that now).

The Miss USA competition (not to be confused with the Miss America pageant of the famous theme song and Atlantic City background) is a part of the Miss Universe pageant, which is an entirely separate circuit.

The Miss America pageant made headlines announcing they would no longer judge contestants on physical appearance or recognize the swimsuit competition.

In contrast, the Miss USA pageant continues to employ a swimsuit competition and has no talent competition. Still, the three portions — an interview segment in front of a panel of judges, evening wear and the swimsuit competition – can require a lot of grueling preparation.

“It’s like getting ready for the Olympics, because you have to have your body right, your mind right and your community service, while preparing to foster relationships,” said Jasmyne Franklin, who represented Falls Church at the pageant.

While she had an amazing experience at the pageant in Norfolk Sheraton, Ashi stops short of calling the experience a vacation.

“We were up and running sunrise to sunset,” said Ashi. “It’s a lot more work than it looks like.”

As for the swimsuit competition, 2016 Ms. Virginia America Marta Bota explained, “it’s really about showing physical fitness, which is about showing a woman is well-rounded.”

Bota was also Ashi’s personal coach and said that Grace’s story inspired her, though that’s par for the course for her contestants.

“A lot of people don’t realize the work that goes into pageantry, as well as how educated they are and what kind of pillars to the community they are,” she said. “It’s really been amazing to mentor these amazing women and I get a lot out of it myself.”

Bota worked with Ashi for six weeks, which is generally late in the process to prepare for the pageant. Typically, contestants train a year or so in advance.

Bota estimates that this might have limited her chances of advancing, but that she did an incredible job under the circumstances, citing her as a quick worker and a great student.

“She’s a really bright young woman, she’s go-getter, she’s ambitious, that’s what I got out of her,” said Bota. “I’m sure if she comes back, she’ll do even better.”

In addition to her traditional pageant training, Ashi also attended the Hollins Communications Research Institute in Roanoke. There, she participated in a 10-day immersive therapy program that included 100 hours of therapy for people with stuttering disorders.

“It was my first time meeting other people suffering from the same thing I’m going through,” she said. “I learned how important it is that we need people like me to give me a voice and it was my first time being comfortable with my version of the story.”

Through the course of an orientation and pageant weekend this past fall in Norfolk, Grace found a lot of camaraderie and felt as if it were more of a sisterhood than a competition. Franklin and Ashi keep in touch with the other contestants through a chat group.

In fact, one night during the competition, Ashi came back to her hotel room and found one of her friends gave an inspirational note, along with a gift from Franklin.

But these days, she’s back to her day job as a realtor with Keller Williams, which comes with its own challenges.

“Most people with any kind of speech impediment would avoid working in sales but I do not want the stuttering to control my destiny,” she said. “That’s not to say it’s been easy. Sometimes insecurities of my speech does hold me back from putting myself out there.”

She also runs a fashion blog, “Girl Meets Pearl” in her spare time, and has documented much of her journey with the followers of her blog through her Instagram account.

As Miss Arlington USA 2019, Ashi is a delegate of the community and works to advance her platform — in this case, combating bullying — through volunteering, fundraising and advocacy work. She works at an after school program, Aspire Afterschool Learning, and hopes to host charity events, which would raise funds to expand those facilities.

“Even if I didn’t get win the competition, I can still use the title to get involved in my community,” said Ashi.

Ashi moved here from New York in 2015 and calls “Arlington one of the best cities I’ve ever been in my entire life” because of its cleanliness, diversity, and restaurant scene.

Next up, Ashi is considering competing in Miss United States.

For more of Grace Ashi, follow her on Instagram @Grace_Ashi and for more of Aspire, go to Aspireafterschool.org.

Courtesy photo

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Morning Notes

Dorsey Upped to Voting Member on Metro Board — Arlington County Board member Christian Dorsey has been appointed as one of the two principal voting members of the WMATA Board of Directors from Virginia. He previously served on the Metro board in a non-voting alternate capacity. [Arlington County, Twitter]

Miss Arlington Takes State Crown — Miss Arlington, Emili McPhail, has been crowned Miss Virginia and will compete in the Miss America pageant. [WDBJ7]

Alex Trebek in Arlington — Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek stopped by the WJLA studios in Rosslyn on Friday for an interview with the station’s anchors and to help with the weather forecast. [WJLA]

VOA Profiles Choun’s County Board Run — The Voice of America’s Cambodian service followed up on Cambodian-American Chanda Choun’s run for Arlington County Board. Though Choun did not receive the Democratic nomination, he did over-perform the expectations of many. Despite the defeat, he also is encouraging “other non-traditional candidates to run to make local US elections more competitive.” [VOA Cambodia]

Lidl Faces U.S. Headwinds — German grocer Lidl, which established its American headquarters in Arlington near Crystal City, has had a rocky go of it as it tries to expand in the U.S. The company is adjusting its strategy after disappointing results from the stores it has opened thus far. [Philly Inquirer]

Six Achieve Eagle Scout Status — “Six members of Boy Scout Troop 638, affiliated with Little Falls Presbyterian Church, recently ascended to Eagle Scout during a ceremony held June 9 at the church. Recent Yorktown High School graduates Owen Gorman, Aubrey Bouchoux, Jack Durham, Tim Kent and Michael Mellett  and recent H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program graduate Ben Mundt were honored at the ceremony.” [InsideNova]

Photo courtesy @bethanyhardy

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Miss Arlington Feeling ‘A Lot of Pressure’ for State Pageant

Briana Hanafin had never been in a pageant before entering the Miss Arlington 2014 contest last December, but that didn’t stop her from winning the sash, tiara and entrance into this year’s Miss Virginia pageant.

The 24-year-old Arlington native graduated from Yorktown High School and works as an I.T. consultant for Accenture. She tells ARLnow.com that she entered the pageant because all of her time in high school and college — she attended Baylor University in Texas before transferring and graduating from the University of Maryland — was devoted to playing softball.

“It was just on my bucket list of things to do, because all of my weekends in school were going to softball games and tournaments,” Hanafin said. “You have to be 24 or younger to compete, so there’s a time limit.”

She “didn’t do much training” for Miss Arlington, but, since being crowned, that’s completely changed. The Miss Arlington team has taken over her preparation, paying for a personal trainer three times a week and even sending her to Dallas, Texas, to shop for dresses, admitting “I have never done this much shopping in my life.”

Despite being a novice the pageant world, it wouldn’t be a shock if she performs well at the Miss Virginia pageant from June 26-28 in Roanoke. Miss Arlington 2009, Caressa Cameron, was crowned Miss America 2010. Last year’s Miss Arlington, Desiree Williams, won the state pageant, as did 2010 Miss Arlington winner Caitlin Uze.

“I had no idea how big of a reputation [Miss Arlington] had,” she said. “They know how to prepare the girls, which makes me feel good, but this is a lot of pressure. All the previous Miss Arlingtons have been so nice. I even got a Facebook message after I won saying ‘welcome to the best sorority ever.'”

The former shortstop sang Jar of Hearts by Christina Perri for her talent, but she can’t reveal what song she plans to sing for Miss Virginia. She’s listed as the last contestant out of 26 who will be competing in the pageant.

Miss Virginia becomes a spokesperson for the Children’s Miracle Network of hospitals, and Hanafin has been giving talks for months about her social platform, global education, which was inspired by a month she spent in college teaching students in Africa.

It will be difficult for Hanafin to draw on her experience from December’s pageant: she said she was on stage for only a couple of minutes, and it was such a whirlwind that “it’s almost like I blacked out.” Her biggest memory: the surprisingly lengthy process of pinning the tiara to her hair, which took nearly a dozen hair clips. She said she was sure it was going to fall off.

It’s been a long six months between the Miss Arlington and Miss Virginia pageants, but she’s hoping this time around, she remembers the experience. No matter what, she’s enjoying the ride.

“I’ve gotten to be an ambassador for Children’s Miracle Network, and I got to meet the current Miss America, which was kind of unreal. I met her, and I was like ‘I want your job,'” she said. She’s still getting used to the public appearances, however. “I still feel like my crown’s going to fall off.”

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Morning Notes

MorningNotes070313

Miss Arlington Wins Miss Virginia Pageant — Desiree Williams, this year’s Miss Arlington, has captured the crown of Miss Virginia. The Newport News native and Hampton University graduate will compete for Miss America 2014 in September in Atlantic City. Williams performed Cubana Cubana on the piano for her talent and won support with her “Fit and Fun” platform. [Roanoke Times]

Deputy Accused of Murder Denied Bail — Arlington sheriff’s deputy Craig Patterson, accused of murder in the May 22 shooting of Alexandria resident Julian Dawkins, has been denied bail. He’s due back in court on Aug. 6. [WJLA]

Guilty Plea in Smash-and-Grab Robberies — Floyd Davis, 43, of Washington, D.C. pled guilty Tuesday to a role in the smash-and-grab robberies of several high-end retail stores in the D.C. area, including the March Tourneau robbery at Pentagon City mall that cost the store $600,000 worth of merchandise. Davis admitted in Alexandria federal court to scouting the store to see where security guards and patrons were positioned, but said he didn’t break glass or steal merchandise. [Washington Post]

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Miss America’s Low-Key Arlington Homecoming

It could have been the lack of advance notice. Or the low foot traffic around the somewhat unusual choice of venue. Or could it be that in the reality show age of the shrill and the controversy-addicted, where the racier Miss USA pageant seems to get all the headlines, that the wholesome Miss America institution is losing a bit of cultural relevance?

Either way, there were remarkably few people queuing up to see the woman who represented their hometown and their home state while capturing what is still one of the most prestigious and recognizable titles in American life.

Caressa Cameron, the reigning Miss America and the former Miss Arlington and Miss Virginia, signed autographs and took photos with fans at the DSW Shoe Warehouse In Pentagon City for three hours Tuesday night. The stream of fans was slow but steady. Only occasionally did a line form.

One could argue that the Miss Arlington title itself isn’t really the draw one might think it would be, since the contest actually draws young women from around the state, not just from within the county. And it could also be said that with everything else that goes on in Arlington, beauty pageants may not be high on most people’s priority list.

Nonetheless, Cameron’s “homecoming” (she’s actually from Fredericksburg, Va.) was a decidedly low-key affair. But that didn’t seem to faze someone who has made a career out of poise and grace.

“This is the first time I’ve been back in Arlington since winning,” she noted enthusiastically, saying it was exciting to see members of the local pageant board again. Familiar faces seems to be in short supply in the life of Miss America.

“I travel every 36 hours, about 20,000 miles a month,” Cameron gushed. “I’m up, most of the time, before 4:30. I have interviews in the morning, I go to children’s hospitals during the day, I do fundraising events at night. I do sponsored events like this with DSW to meet the American public and to get the Miss America brand out there. So it’s a busy life. I just got back from Germany where I was able to visit the troops there — some of our wounded warriors at Landstuhl.  I have a wonderful, wonderful job and I enjoy it.”

After her reign is completed, Cameron hopes to move back to Virginia and become a news anchor in the D.C. area.

“I don’t want to leave Virginia, I’m such a Virginia girl. Working in the Arlington-D.C. market would be absolutely perfect. So hopefully there’s a home for me when I’m done,” she said.

One person who came out to see Cameron was Lindsay Morris, who in December succeeded Cameron as Miss Arlington. The James Madison University student said one of her reasons for making the drive up with her parents was to seek inspiration.

“Caressa speaks often about how she was a young girl kind of on the wrong track… and now she’s Miss America,” Morris said, holding her Miss Arlington sash. “It shows all young women that no matter what level you start at, who you are or where you’re from, you can achieve those dreams.”

In June Morris will try to keep the Miss Virginia crown in Arlington for a second year in a row. And if she can win in the statewide competition, then the next step is the Miss America pageant in 2011.  Trying to match Cameron’s achievements is a daunting task, Morris admits.

“They are very big shoes to fill,” she said while staring longingly at the sparkling crown atop Cameron’s head. “Hopefully I will do all of the people in Arlington very proud.”

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Homecoming of Sorts for Reigning Miss America

Reigning Miss America Caressa Cameron will be returning to Arlington tonight for an appearance in Pentagon City. Cameron, who won the Miss Arlington pageant before being crowned Miss Virginia last year, is technically from Fredericksburg, but we’ll call this a “homecoming” regardless.

Cameron will be appearing at the DSW Shoe Warehouse (1301 South Joyce Street) at Pentagon Row from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. Customers will be able to meet Cameron, take a photo with her and get her autograph.

The store will be offering 15 percent off regularly-priced merchandise during the event and $100 gift cards will be raffled every half hour.

DSW sponsors the Miss America pageant.

Photo from missamerica.org.

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Miss Arlington Crowned Miss America

Photo from missamerica.org

Caressa Cameron, who was crowned Miss Arlington 2009 and then Miss Virginia 2009, was crowned Miss America 2010 on Saturday’s nationally-televised pageant. Cameron, a Fredericksburg, Va. native, wins a $50,000 and will now embark on a national publicity tour.

Cameron’s first appearance was on Live! with Regis and Kelly this morning.  She will appear on entertainment show EXTRA tonight.  The show airs locally at 2:00 AM on ABC 7 (WJLA).

Although Cameron’s media duties will keep her in New York for now, expect a homecoming for the beauty queen no later than April. Traditionally, Miss America winners participate in the National Cherry Blossom Festival parade.

The Washington Post‘s story about Cameron’s win can be found here, interviews with her parents here, and comments on Cameron’s winning qualities from pageant judge and radio host Rush Limbaugh here.

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