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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.
Elizabeth Peace — also known as Mrs. Arlington and Mrs. Virginia — wants to become Mrs. America, but she doesn’t care much about the recognition that comes with the title.
Instead, she wants to help make the world a better place by using the pageant as a platform to educate people about preventing child sex abuse.
Peace, who lives in South Arlington, will spend this week in Las Vegas rehearsing, donning evening gowns and answering judges’ questions, all in an effort to win the Mrs. America crown.
A native of Idaho Falls, Idaho, Peace moved to Arlington in 2014 after her husband was sent to Japan on a military assignment. Though still somewhat new to the area, she won the title of Mrs. Arlington earlier this year. Months later, she was crowned Mrs. Virginia.
(The reigning Ms. Virginia also lives in Arlington.)
Peace said that getting into the world of pageantry was a little daunting at first, and not even her idea.
“Mrs. Virginia 2014 is a friend of mine,” she said. “She is the one who asked me to compete for Mrs. Virginia. I said no at first.”
After all, Peace is pretty busy. She spends her days working as a communications director on Capitol Hill. On the side, she’s a facilitator with child sex abuse prevention organization Darkness to Light.
“That was something that I went through the majority of my childhood and that is why it matters so much to me,” Peace said. “The biggest thing for me is letting people know that… it doesn’t have to ruin the rest of your life.”
Once she realized she could use the opportunity to promote the things she feels strongly about, Peace said she was all in.
“I think most people would wonder… why in the world would you do a pageant?” she said. “When I realized what you can do with that title and how many people you can talk to, to me, it was worth it.”
And wearing evening gowns and walking in high heels can be fun, too, Peace said.
Could she beat out 51 other women to become Mrs. America? Peace said she feels like the odds just might be in her favor as they were when she won her previous titles.
“I feel like my chances are good,” she said. “If I don’t win, I still feel like I am going to go in there being 100 percent myself.”
If Peace wins top prize in Vegas, she’ll head to South Korea for the Mrs. World pageant.
Locals who want to watch this year’s Mrs. America competition can tune in on the pageant’s website this Sunday Aug. 28, at 8 p.m.
Photo by Studio FBJ Photography
Metro Delays and Traffic This Morning — There are residual delays on the Orange and Silver lines due to a malfunctioning train near the Clarendon Metro station earlier this morning. For drivers, morning rush hour traffic is noticeably heavier than usual around Northern Virginia inside the Beltway. [Twitter]
Firefighters Applaud New Metro Move — WMATA will now staff its Metrorail control center with a uniformed fire officer 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Arlington’s firefighter association applauded the move, calling it a “positive step for the safety of firefighters and citizens in the DMV.” [WTOP, Twitter]
CARD to Hold School Board Debate — The Pike Presidents’ Group and the Coalition of Arlingtonians for Responsible Development, which advocates for a wider distribution of affordable housing throughout the county, is holding a School Board candidate debate on Wednesday, May 11. CARD also sent a candidate questionaire to all four candidates seeking the Democratic nomination. Of them, only Tannia Talento declined to respond. [CARD, CARD]
Liberty Tavern Named Top Brunch Spot — A new-for-2016 list of the top brunch spots in the country, compiled from diner reviews by the restaurant reservation website OpenTable, includes The Liberty Tavern in Clarendon. [OpenTable, Patch]
Mall Launches Walking Program — Today, the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City is launching a new program called “Walk-Fit.” Open to all ages, the program is described as “an official way for walkers to meet up, exercise, socialize and even enjoy a morning cup of coffee,” all inside the mall.
Flickr pool photo by Kevin Wolf
Low House Rental Profits in Arlington — Of 448 U.S. counties with a population over 100,000, Arlington County has the lowest annual gross yield on rentals of single family homes. Those renting their homes can expect a low return on their investment: only 3.3 percent in Arlington. [RealtyTrac]
Mrs. Arlington Spotlights Child Sex Abuse — Former TV anchor and current Capitol Hill comms director Jen “Elizabeth” Peace is using her title as the reigning Mrs. Arlington to bring attention to the issue of child sexual abuse. Peace will compete for the title of Mrs. Virginia the weekend of April 22. [Arlington Connection]
Historical Society’s Washington Walk — The Arlington Historical Society will be hosting a “Washington Forest History Walk” next weekend. The free event will retrace the footsteps of George Washington as he surveyed his land in what is now Arlington. [InsideNova]
Creeping Easter Bunny on Newspaper Cover — This week’s cover of the Arlington Connection newspaper features an Easter bunny that’s trying to sneak up on kids in the woods, with the headline “Easter Surprise.” Is this the “creepiest Easter bunny ever,” as one emailer suggested? [Arlington Connection]
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.”
An Arlington resident is in the running to become the next Miss USA.
Shannon McAnally, who lives in Courthouse, is the reigning Miss Virginia USA and will compete for the national title live on NBC on Sunday, June 16.
Though she will be representing Virginia, McAnnally is actually a native Texan. She moved to Arlington just over a year ago to help her family expand its construction business to Virginia.
The company, MCC and Associates, specializes in restaurant construction and renovation. McAnally is the company’s marketing director and a licensed contractor — the latter being an exceedingly rare accreditation for a young beauty pageant contestant.
“It is very unique… I don’t know many women my age who are involved in the commercial construction industry,” she said. McAnally noted, however, that the Miss USA pageant has featured women who are attorneys and doctors.
“That’s one of the misconceptions you find in beauty pageants, is that you think it’s just about being a pretty face, when it has more to due with the substance of a person,” she said. She said her involvement in pageants started as a fun hobby, but grew into a serious goal and drive to become Miss USA.
McAnally said she picked Arlington and the Courthouse neighborhood as her home above every other locality in Virginia because of the county’s urban amenities, which for made an easier transition from her hometown of Dallas.
“Everything is so convenient,” she said. “You can walk to restaurants and stores, it’s just a perfect area to live in.”
McAnally says she’s an appreciator of museums, dining out, shopping, and music. Her favorite shopping destinations are Georgetown and Tysons Corner, but she can often be spotted at the Courthouse farmers market on Saturday mornings, or two favorite Clarendon food destinations: Whole Foods and Circa restaurant.
Just don’t expect to see her out much between now and June 16. McAnally says she’s been busy training for the pageant, working with walking coaches, interview coaches and other advisers. A vegetarian, McAnally has also been eating extra healthy and “exercising like crazy,” so she can be in top shape for the swimsuit competition.
If you do see McAnally out and about, it may be as she tours the Commonwealth in her role as Miss Virginia USA. She has been able to crisscross the state in style, thanks to the silver 2013 Mercedes Benz C250 that she received as part of her statewide pageant win this past November.
The hour-long military pageants feature soldiers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (the Old Guard) and the U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own.” While the pageant takes place, neighbors near Ft. Myer may hear singing, music and blank cannon fire.
All performances are free and open to the public. Tonight’s performance is held at Summerall Field on Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall. Seating is on a first come, first served basis. Pre-ceremony pageantry begins at 6:45 p.m., and the ceremony begins at 7:00 p.m.
The full list of dates and exact locations on the base can be found online.
Third time was a charm for 22-year-old Arlington native Caitlin Uze. The Washigton-Lee High School grad and James Madison University senior was crowned Miss Virginia on Saturday, after two prior attempts at the title.
Uze, who was competing as Miss Greater Richmond (local residency is not required to compete in regional pageants), will receive $17,000 in scholarship money and free rent for a year. She will compete for the Miss America crown next year.
Caressa Cameron, the 2009 Miss Arlington winner who went on to win Miss Virginia and then Miss America, was on hand for the pageant, which was held in Roanoke.
Uze is studying social work and family studies at JMU and graduated in the top 20% of her Washington-Lee class, according to a personal website. Her hobbies include Irish dance, photography and reading.
She “showed poise” when asked about the Gulf oil spill during the interview portion of the pageant, according to the Richmond Times Dispatch.
Photo via web.
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.
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.