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Meet Elle Smith, our representative to Miss USA

Elle Smith's official headshot for the Miss USA 2021 pageant from the Miss USA website.

“Is that Miss Kentucky? That’s Miss Kentucky,” whispered a teenager passing through the Oxmoor Center in Louisville on Sunday, Nov. 14.

Miss Kentucky was standing just inside the mall’s Kendra Scott store, greeting fans and taking photos as part of her send-off to the Miss USA pageant. In her official sash—worn everywhere on pageant business—Ellen Smith looked every inch the poised, gracious woman one would expect a pageant queen to be.

“To this day I don't consider myself a pageant girl. I’m Miss Kentucky USA and I'm like, ‘What in the world is this pageantry lifestyle?’ It's so weird for me for people to come up and be like ‘oh, it's Miss Kentucky USA,’ and they start getting excited—like no, it's just me,” Elle said.

Genuine, warm, intelligent, free-spirited and above all determined—these are just some of the words close friends and family use to describe Elle, a 2020 UK graduate and Miss Kentucky. Elle rose to the title in May of 2021 after winning the state competition in her very first pageant appearance.

“I used to be one of those people who was like, ‘pageantry exploits women, there's really no benefits, it's old school, there's no reason for women to do it,’ and competing completely changed my perspective of it,” Elle said. Now she views pageantry as a catalyst for personal growth and a source of opportunities for women.

Elle's journey to Miss Kentucky began at UK, where she majored in journalism with a minor in political science. She was involved in the UK Student News Network, the National Association of Black Journalists and of special importance to her pageant career, UK’s chapter of Alpha Delta Pi.

“I joined a sorority and it was like everyone had done pageants,” she said. At no point before had she been interested in pageantry, but this exposure led her to consider competing.

“But then I looked into it and I realized how expensive it was. And I was like, ‘okay, I cannot do this.’ My mom's not going to pay for tuition and also pay for pageantry on the side,” Elle said.

So she waited until she landed her first “big girl job.” Two months after starting at WHAS11, a broadcast station in Louisville, she registered for the Miss Kentucky pageant.

“I texted my mom and I said, ‘Listen, block off May 21 and May 22 because I'm competing in Miss Kentucky USA and you have to be there,’” Elle said. She competed against friends and sorority sisters, an environment she found supportive and empowering and a contrast to the stereotype of petty pageant girls.

“I walked away with so many friendships and we were backstage just giggling, laughing. It almost seemed like a fun hangout weekend instead of a competition,” Elle said.

She has since taken up the mantle of the Commonwealth, traveling across the state to attend festivals and training for perhaps the No. 1 task of her role: competing for the national title.

Elle, 23, flew out on Nov. 20 to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where this year’s Miss USA will be crowned. The winner will move to Los Angeles on a six-figure salary (plus a Porsche) and represent the country for a year, beginning with the Miss Universe pageant in December.

Preparing for the national pageant has been six months of a grueling schedule and a true test of Elle's time management skills.

“I always say that I have two full-time jobs right now,” she said, and fulfilling her responsibilities is exactly the juggling act it sounds like.

She spends a minimum of 30 hours a week on pageant business on top of working 9:30 to 6:30 every day for WHAS. Her day begins at 5:30 a.m., when she wakes up to exercise from 6 to 8.

After work, she spends three hours in meetings and interview prep for Miss USA with a coach from the state pageant system. She saves the weekends for attending events across the state.

“It's a lot, but it's a year of your life that you're giving back to the state and the opportunities that it provides you,” Elle said. “You work your butt off for a year and it's 100% worth it.”

Audiences rarely see the grueling work contestants put in behind-the-scenes; competitors log hundreds of hours in prep for a five-minute interview and a two-hour broadcast.

“I'm running around with my head cut off. But it's hard. I would be remiss to say it's not hard,” Elle said. She relies on a planner and has her whole day broken by the hour, sticks to a strict bedtime of 10 p.m. and wakes up at 5:30 a.m. no matter what. She keeps Sundays for herself to read, clean her apartment and recharge on her own.

“It is a year of sacrifice. You are giving yourself to the people of Kentucky for a whole entire year and I'm thinking, okay, I can do anything for a year, I can put off other things for a year and then if I win Miss USA, it'll be two years and be fine,” Elle said.

Win or lose at Miss USA, she’s been granted opportunities and memories she wouldn’t have had otherwise—opportunities like walking in New York Fashion Week for Sherri Hill.

The Miss Kentucky contract is more flexible than those of other state titles; Elle is required to represent the state but gets to choose her events, which allowed her to keep working.

“A lot of the girls have actually quit their jobs to be their state titleholders this year, so they have a lot more time which I fully respect. I wish I could do that, I just need the money,” Elle said.

She often chooses events centered around her philanthropic causes, one of which is mentoring young girls.

“There's so many events that I hadn't heard of or things or festivals that I wouldn't have been able to go to if I wasn't Miss Kentucky USA. So, the best part has been traveling Kentucky and meeting Kentucky,” Elle said.

Elle chose mentorship because of how much she valued volunteering with young girls during her time at UK. Despite entering college undecided about her major and with no connections on campus, Elle quickly found her passion and a community in the College of Communication and Information.

“My adviser was like, ‘What do you like to do?’ And I said, ‘Oh, I like to write.’ And I liked history and she said, ‘Okay, you should go to JOU 101.’ And so I went,” Elle recalled. She didn’t love or hate the introductory course, so she went on to JOU 204, where she was handed her camera and fell in love.

“My dad's a photographer, so I've been surrounded by that aspect of the arts for a while, but having a camera and going out and just talking to people was my favorite thing because I love to talk,” Elle said.

She’ll never forget her first assignment: her professor split the class into pairs, gave them a camera and said to go find a story on campus. Elle ended up doing a story on campus buses that were running off schedule, and after that, her love for journalism grew.

“The College of CI, we're very excited about our students’ success out in the world this way,” Journalism Professor Kakie Urch said. “And it's wonderful to see Elle succeed both in the in the news business on WHAS and then also in the pageant.”

Urch had Elle in class, was her academic adviser and was the faculty adviser for NABJ, of which Elle was the vice president.

“What most impressed me about Elle as a journalism student was her confidence to go up to people and ask them questions and her confidence to go in and be part of a situation and figure it out,” Urch said. “That's one of the hardest things for people in journalism to learn.”

Elle Smith poses for a KRNL feature story written by Akhira Umar. Photo by Isaac Janssen.

If there’s one through-line to Elle's experience as Miss Kentucky, it’s confidence.

“I know that I can now speak to anyone, which I think takes a lot of confidence. I can walk into a room and feel confident in who I am as a person, what I have to offer. I know myself, I know my strengths, my weaknesses,” Elle said.

Luckily for Elle, her broadcast career and her side gig—if pageantry can be called a side gig—overlap and complement each other.

As a multimedia journalist, Elle goes out into the community to meet people and hear their stories, and part of that is making strangers feel comfortable enough to ignore the big cameras next to them.

“It's all about connection, which is the same thing that Miss Kentucky USA is about,” she said. As a reporter and a representative of the state, she feels her job is to make everyone—from 90-year-old war veterans to preschoolers—feel seen.

One of Elle's favorite events that she presided over as Miss Kentucky was a pre-teen pageant at a county fair.

“I drove home and I was just smiling, laughing to myself because they were just so joyful and they were just being themselves, and I just appreciated being able to be in that moment with them,” Elle said.

This joyful, light-hearted side of Elle is one her best friend is particularly proud for the world to see.

“She can be really professional when it comes down to it. She can joke around and I think I laugh more with her than any other person in the world. So it's fun for other people to see that side of her,” said Jenna Griffin, a licensed nurse and Elle's best friend of a decade.

Jenna and Elle met the summer before high school and grew close while playing volleyball and acting in musicals together. Ask anyone who knows Elle and they’ll tell you just how strong her background in the arts—musical and otherwise—is.

Elle Smith smiles during her send-off event for Miss USA on Nov. 14, 2021. Photo by Natalie Parks.

“When she was a little girl, she knew every single lyric to Broadway musicals. I literally would walk out into the hallway and hear her singing the top of her lungs and I would crack the door open and try to take videos of her cause she would just be in there dancing and singing away to musicals,” said Elle’s mother, Lydia Smith.

Lydia is a high school teacher in Louisville and had the good fortune to teach Elle in choir and orchestra classes. She maintains that Elle’s sense of showmanship is a lifelong trait and one that benefits her in pageantry.

“It’s performance. Learning to walk the stage and all of that, all of the movement, the choreography—that for her is something that she's naturally gravitated towards since she's been a little girl. So I will take—I won't take credit for the stage walking, but I will take credit for a bit of an infusion of artistry into Elle,” Lydia said.

Unlike Miss America, the Miss USA pageant does not have a talent portion—but if it did, the choice would be clear for Elle.

“100% sing. She’s got a great voice and she never lets anybody hear it,” Jenna said. The pair were in musicals together in high school, including a production of Legally Blonde where Elle played Pilar, one of Elle Woods’ sorority sisters.

But Elle’s go-to song should be anything Beyoncé, “because she always jokes that she’s Beyoncé,” Jenna said.

Lydia and Jenna are just two of the influential women that have surrounded Elle throughout her life. Lydia has four sisters, each of whom has played a distinct and formative role in Elle’s life.

“One of the things that I love about them is they've all shown me that hard work can get you very far in life,” Elle said. Each of the sisters followed a different path—Lydia earned her PhD after having Elle at 24, one aunt is a nurse practitioner, one is a mortician and one is an aesthetician who forwent college and owns her own business.

Surrounded by such powerful role models, Elle grew up knowing there’s no one way to be a woman, a lesson paralleled by her experience in pageantry.

“What do you expect a pageant girl to be like? You expect her to be pretty and then you don't expect her to be anything else. You don't expect her to have any depth,” Elle said. But she competes against doctors, lawyers, fellow journalists and a bevy of other intelligent women.

“Some will be their state titleholder and then go off and get married and have kids, and that's fine,” Elle said. “I think growing up, I appreciate the fact that my aunts showed me that there was not a certain way to do life and that's what womanhood is all about, being yourself is all about figuring out exactly what you want, and I think that's what pageantry is going towards right now.”

As Miss Kentucky USA, Elle has had a unique opportunity to honor one of the most important women in her life: her grandmother, Amy Ellen Smith. Elle and Amy lived just a few houses apart while she was growing up and Elle said her grandmother was her favorite person in the world.

“I went to her house every single day for pancakes before school, she would take me out of classes during high school to go shopping, she was just fun. And she ended up dying of cervical cancer in 2015 because she wasn't getting her preventative screenings,” Elle said.

Elle has chosen cervical cancer awareness as one of her philanthropic causes. The deeply personal connection to this cause is strongly felt by Elle’s family.

“We miss her daily. We try to live in her honor and I feel like this is one of the ways that Ellen is honoring Amy, my mom, and I hope if she knows anything, she knows she’s proud of that work,” Lydia said.

A photo of Amy Ellen Smith, grandmother to Miss Kentucky USA Ellen Smith, is displayed during a send-off party for the Miss USA pageant. Ellen chose cervical cancer as her philanthropic cause in tribute to Amy, who died of the disease in 2015. Photo by Natalie Parks.

Lydia suspects her mom didn’t follow up with her doctor’s concerns because she was busy looking after her own mother, who was sick with Parkinson’s and leukemia.

“Women that take care of themselves should not die of cervical cancer, but the reality is that so, so many women die of cervical cancer,” Lydia said. Socioeconomic factors often prevent women from getting regular screenings, which are key to catching the disease in time.

Elle noted that conversations about gynecological health can be uncomfortable, but it’s too important to ignore. Starting those conversations is key to her year as Miss Kentucky and potentially Miss USA.

The love and support of her family has enabled Elle to feel comfortable in her reign despite personal sacrifices. Jenna, who lives in Cincinnati, will drive two or three hours to attend events with Elle as moral support. Lydia provides a much more tangible resource: clothes.

As Miss Kentucky, Elle’s image is of paramount importance. She described her style as strong chic, individualistic and fun, and though Elle has sponsors for big events, she pays for much of her wardrobe herself—or ransacks her mother’s closet.

“I came home this weekend and all my closet doors were open and she had clearly been in there rooting around. But I've always loved clothes, and so to be honest, I actually find it flattering at this point,” Lydia said.

Just as Miss Kentucky was the first pageant for Elle, it was the first exposure her close friends and family had to pageantry.

“Since I've seen somebody so close to me go through it, I would never think that it's sexist. And I think it's kind of the complete opposite and that it does empower women and allows them to be themselves and feel beautiful,” Jenna said.

Pageant queens are stereotyped as snobby, superficial and catty beyond compare. Outsiders see pageantry as demeaning to women and designed for the male gaze.

“That's something that gets lost in that stereotype of pageants—that these women are so in tune with who they are, and they're so in tune with what they're passionate about,” said Becky Minger, Elle’s pageant coach.

The Miss USA franchise is under new leadership this year as Crystle Stewart, Miss USA 2008, takes the helm. Elle said Stewart aims to prove that women can be more than one thing.

“She wants to show that beauty and intelligence are not exclusive,” Elle said. The focus on beauty has led audiences to be skeptical about the swimsuit portion of the competition especially, Elle said.

“People are always concerned about that. They're like, ‘this is exploiting women’, dot dot dot, and I wholeheartedly disagree with that and I also think the notion that pageantry is exclusive is not true at all,” Elle said, with all races, ethnicities and sexual orientations welcome.

This year’s Miss USA pageant features the first transgender contestant, Kataluna Enriquez of Nevada. But that progress is not enough—Elle explained that though pageantry is inclusive of ethnicities, races and sexual orientations, it is lacking in diversity of body types.

“If you look at the girls that are competing, more or less we all have the same body type. We're all going to be tall and thin, let's be honest,” Elle said. “And I think if we really are saying we want to be representative of women as a whole, then we've got to embrace different types of bodies. I think there are different types of bodies that showcase healthiness that are not just tall and thin.”

Kentucky has only had two Black state titleholders—Elle and Clark Jannell Davis, 2015’s winner.

“I think the most rewarding piece of it for me is watching Ellen come into her own as a biracial woman,” Lydia said.

Lydia herself is white and has noticed how race has influenced her daughter, particularly in Elle’s journey with her hair. When she was younger, Elle straightened her hair. But when she went to college she told her mom she was going to cut off all her hair and go natural. For Lydia, this is the moment Elle came into her own more completely.

“I believe that women are going to be evolving clear through till death, I think we're amazing creatures. And so there's no moment where you arrive as a person… as far as the confidence that I see in her now and the ability to focus and be like, ‘It's not about how others perceive me, it's about what I can contribute to the world’—that really aligned when she cut her hair,” Lydia said.

Hair and racial identity aligned when Elle joined a sorority at UK. As part of her freshman year, the older sorority sisters showed the new members how to wear their hair and makeup. Elle told her mom that there was only one Black girl.

“I was like, ‘Okay, well you step up and you be that girl for the next group of young women that come along,” Lydia said.

Elle Smith on the cover of the September 2021 issue of Today's Woman.

Elle has been vocal about her hair relationship with her hair and how it intertwines with her racial identity. In a feature story for KRNL, she said kids in middle school would comment on her hair, leading to a drop in self-confidence and the decision to chemically relax her 3c curls.

In her occasional modeling gigs, Elle found that the stylists weren’t trained for styling Black hair. Embracing her identity and doing ‘the big chop’ was a profound move.

“When I say it was the most liberating experience I have ever had, it honestly was,” Smith said in the feature. “It was almost freeing in a way just because it was like all those history of just not feeling confident in yourself, not feeling beautiful enough, and then having those curls brought back my self-confidence.”

She’s worn her hair natural ever since, including onstage at Miss Kentucky where she had her curls in an updo. Urch said that one of Elle’s best journalism projects was a podcast about Black hair that she produced along with three other Black women in the class.

This intersection of womanhood, identity and self-expression is a perfect embodiment of the representation Elle brings to Miss Kentucky USA and the Miss USA pageant. That kind of responsibility is no easy thing to bear—heavy lies the head that wears the crown.

MISS KENTUCKY: ‘Wearing your state across your chest’

Photo by Isaac Janssen.

May 21, 2021. Somerset, Kentucky. The 67th annual Miss Kentucky pageant. Elle Smith is set to make her first pageant appearance, but she’s frozen with nerves.

“They had to push me on stage,” Elle recalled. In the first night of the two-day pageant, she found herself doubting her ability, but only for a moment.

As one of 46 contestants, she had stiff competition all around—many with years more pageant experience than her. Representing Germantown, Elle competed in the swimsuit, evening gown and interview stages comprising Miss USA pageants.

“It was really neat to see, especially Elle, how she the second night came out more confident than the first night,” said Jenna. Both were new to pageants when Elle signed up for Miss Kentucky.

“It wasn't a surprise to me because we've kind of talked about it for a little while. But it was really cool to see how she took it and made it a really huge goal in her life and then how determined she was to actually participate,” Jenna said.

That determination was key in the run-up to the pageant; Elle spent five months preparing with a personal trainer and pageant coach. Despite being a newbie to the pageant world, Elle was able to quickly connect with trainers and coaches through her sorority sisters.

She also continued working full-time at WHAS11. In her role as a multimedia journalist, Elle pitches, captures and edits news stories in southern Indiana. Her broadcast career benefits her pageantry and vice versa.

“I think she kind of sees the other side of it, so she's able to come up with good responses to the questions being asked to her,” Jenna said.

The interview portion of the pageant can be the most nerve-wracking for contestants, who receive a surprise question that can range from COVID-19 mandates to gender equality to personal goals.

Elle said she was more nervous to walk out on stage than the interview question, but she had plenty of support from Jenna and Lydia, both sitting in the audience.

“She and I were just cracking each other up because every time Ellen came on stage, we were white-knuckled and so nervous, but it was so fun,” said Jenna, who texted Elle supportive messages throughout the event.

“We were kind of laughing on the way down. I'm like, ‘You know Jenna, we have to console Ellen—if she doesn't get in the top 15 we’ll have to get her a chocolate milkshake,’ and so we had no inclination that she was going to win Miss Kentucky,” Lydia said.

“I remember so vividly Ellen walking through our halls of high school. And it was a surreal moment when I saw her walk out on Miss Kentucky’s stage because it mimics the exact way she walked in high school. So that's kind of where I feel like she was made for this,” Jenna said.

When Elle advanced to the final 15, Lydia relaxed because she knew that had been Elle’s target for her first pageant. When Elle advanced to the top five, Lydia’s awareness was heightened. And when Elle made the final two...

“I thought, frankly, ‘Holy hell, what is going on?’ And then when they called her name, it was almost surreal because it seemed like almost instantly somebody tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Are you Ellen's mom? Come with us,’” Lydia said. She was then pulled to the front of the auditorium and given a rundown of Elle’s schedule for the night: a photoshoot, contract signings and generally setting up Elle as Miss Kentucky.

Post-pageant, Elle celebrated with Jenna, who procured the chocolate milkshake, something Elle had been missing in the run-up to Miss Kentucky. Everything since has been a whirlwind.

“This is one of the few things in my own life that I've encountered where the excitement is palpable. And also there's a bit of me as her mom that just wants to make sure that she remains grounded and centered. Because at the end of the day, this isn't all of who she is,” Lydia said.

In the week after Elle’s victory at Miss Kentucky, Lydia counseled her to find her center and hold on to it. As a mother, Lydia never wanted Elle to focus solely on her beauty, but also nurture her intellect and path as a woman.

“Pageantry is celebrating women who know exactly what they want and are not afraid to do that, and that doesn't mean that they're fitting into the box that society expects them to be like,” Elle said.

From start to finish, Elle became Miss Kentucky by committing herself to that idea. She’ll need that sense of commitment and fortitude for the next step – appearing on the national stage in the 70th edition of the Miss USA pageant.

MISS USA: ‘Empowerment, confidence, influence’

Elle Smith, Miss Kentucky USA 2021 and a 2020 graduate of UK's College of Communication & Information, poses for a portrait during her send-off event for Miss USA on Nov. 14, 2021. Photo by Natalie Parks.

As Miss Kentucky, Elle has spent the last six months working on everything from her walk to her talk. Overall presentation is crucial to Miss USA; as the saying goes, she won’t get a second chance at a first impression.

Elle doesn’t do it alone—she has a fitness coach, stylist and interview/branding coach.

Becky Minger first encountered Elle Smith while watching the Miss Kentucky USA pageant in May.

“She had an aura about her, she had a light about her and so she was very natural, obviously stunning on stage and she just really stood out to me,” Minger said. “She has all of the pieces to really be Miss Kentucky USA and move on to potentially be Miss USA as well.”

Minger has over 15 years of experience in the pageant industry and works as an independent consultant for Proctor Productions, the company that owns the Miss USA franchises for Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Minger won Miss Ohio America and competed in the Miss America pageant in 2011. Those experiences led her to the role she now fills for Elle—a pageant coach specializing in personal development and branding.

“It's really about helping to bring their personal brand, their story, their voice forward and really helping to package that in a way that the judges who are going to get to meet them for a very, very brief time can really kind of get that full package idea,” Minger said.

Minger is part of Proctor’s nationals prep team. As the coach of eight total contestants, she first has to get to know each girl in order to leverage their unique story. For Elle, that’s her broadcasting career.

“She shines on TV. She's such a wonderful communicator,” Minger said. As a branding coach, Minger’s job is to help Elle emphasize those qualities in competition, where she gets incredibly limited time to make an impression—meaning that every aspect of your presentation counts.

“It kind of forces you to look deeply at yourself and your life and what you want and your skill sets and how to better yourself and challenge yourself within a much shorter timeframe than you would just going through college,” Minger said.

To be successful in pageantry, contestants must take the time to really understand who they are, Minger said. As a coach she breaks this down into what she calls the four E’s: embrace, envision, evolve, elevate.

“You have to know and embrace exactly who you are. You have to envision where you want to be. You have to put in the work to evolve into the very best version of yourself. And then ultimately, you're hoping to elevate your life to the next level,” Minger said.

Elle began prepping for Miss USA immediately after winning Miss Kentucky. The Miss USA pageant consists of swimsuit, evening gown and an interview question. The top five are also asked a second question live on stage.

Fitness is a big aspect because you want to be at your healthiest to be on national television, but Elle believes the interview prep is the most important.

“They want to see who you are as a person, they want to see your branding, they want to see your ideology on certain things,” Elle said. Questions range from social and political topics in the U.S. to how a contestant would encourage a woman who lacks confidence.

As a journalist, Elle has a unique advantage because she is required to be informed on dozens of issues and is already connected to her community’s opinions.

“That's a really great preparation tool for her I think, and hopefully an advantage,” Minger said. “But also something that she gets to do as a broadcaster, as somebody that is out in her community, is speaking one-on-one with so many people from so many walks of life in so many situations.”

Minger is also a professional makeup artist who has worked backstage at several Miss USA pageants, experience that helps her coach contestants through the transition from state to national pageants.

Miss USA will be a bigger stage than Miss Kentucky, streamed on Hulu and on a network with all the lights, cameras and action.

Pop culture doesn’t always show the behind-the-scenes of pageants accurately, like the amount of rehearsal that goes into preparing for a live telecast. Not only do contestants learn choreography, they have to learn which camera to look at when and where to stand for certain camera angles.

“Whether that is the opening number where the women come out and introduce themselves, the swimsuit competition, evening gown competition, the patterns that you walk on the stage are all planned so that you get those right camera shots and so you really have to be on during rehearsals,” Minger said.

The contestants only have a few days to learn this choreography before they’re thrust onto live television, and all contestants have to learn the staging for the top 15, even though not all will advance. Elle’s broadcasting background may give her an edge in this.

“She's ready to just cut to a live shot on TV. She's ready to just speak on her feet,” Minger said.

Elle flew to Tulsa a week before the pageant, which ran Nov. 26 – Nov. 29. In the days leading up to the pageant, Elle and the other 50 contestants faced a brutal 4:00 a.m. to midnight schedule full of rehearsals and photoshoots.

And though Elle was separated from her friends, family and coaches upon arrival in Tulsa, she had a supportive community in place—the other 50 contestants.

Elle met the other state titleholders for the first time in September, when the Miss USA franchise invited them to an all-inclusive resort in Cancun for four days in order to promote sisterhood.

“I walked in really nervous because of course, there's girls that have been competing for 10 years, who have all this experience and I felt a little underprepared. But, again, everyone was so nice, so welcoming,” Elle said. She called her mom and told her that she would be happy for any one of the other contestants to win Miss USA.

“She said ‘Mom, I really feel honored to be a part of this group.’ She said ‘every woman that I met was amazing.’ And I thought that that in and of itself was powerful,” Lydia said.

Only one Kentuckian has won Miss USA; Tara Conner claimed the title in 2006. If Elle can make it to the top five, Minger thinks her journalism background will give her a boost.

“Hopefully—knock on wood—she makes it into the top five and gets one of those top five questions. Hopefully that will feel just like another day in the office,” Minger said.

Minger said the judges are looking to reward confidence in interview responses. Contestants should prove that they are educated on a topic and have an opinion already, instead of overthinking in the moment.

Preparing Elle for interviews is one of Minger’s main tasks. The pair have met in person and over Zoom multiple times a week since May. She also assists with filling out the masses of paperwork required for Miss USA and everything to do with branding, like Elle’s competition wardrobe.

Photo by Isaac Janssen.

“Miss USA is an icon, she's a trendsetter, she's a celebrity. So how do you translate who you are as an individual through your wardrobe? Elle is a professional, she is very stylish,” Minger said.

For the Miss USA pageant especially, Minger encourages finding pieces that photograph well and stand out in a crowd. Henri’s Cloud 9 in Columbus, Ohio is sponsoring Elle’s wardrobe for Miss USA.

“Her competition wardrobe is killer, to die for. I mean, she's going to be a showstopper when she walks out on stage. I can't tell you anything more than that,” Minger said.

Elle couldn’t say much about her evening dress for Miss USA, except for that it was designed by Sherri Hill.

“It's not a bright color, I will tell you that—it's not some outrageous color like blue or green, but I think it encompasses that strong, sexy chic look that I was going for in an evening gown,” Elle said.

Evening gown is one of three components of Miss USA, all weighted equally. Minger said Elle’s upbringing in the arts should also help her stand out in the Miss USA pageant.

“That obviously paid off for her working in broadcast journalism, but her involvement in music and with her family, that's something really special about her that I hope gets highlighted at the national level,” Minger said.

Elle heard that the national competition is a little less friendly due to the high stakes, but she plans to focus and block out any distractions.

“If she wins, I will be incredibly proud of her, and if she doesn't win, I'll be incredibly proud of her,” Lydia said, noting that Elle will always know she worked towards a goal she set for herself.

If she wins Miss USA, Elle will pass her state title to runner-up Veronica Chisholm, Miss Owenton. Either way, Elle’s pageant journey has been nothing but a success.

“I just think Ellen's journey is just beginning and she will make a mark on the world bigger than what I can imagine right now. And I'm just sincerely grateful that I am her mother,” Lydia said.

Lydia and Jenna traveled to Tulsa to watch the pageant in person, sending Elle energy and love from the audience. At the end of it all, Lydia hopes Elle sees this as a realization of her dream and that she’ll be ready to come up with a new resolution.

In her nine days in Tulsa, Elle will wear her state across her chest everywhere she goes. She learned from the Miss USA retreat in Mexico that at the national level, others will call her by her state and not her name; “Hey, Kentucky!” instead of Elle.

Rather than seeing her role as an erasure of her as an individual, Elle sees Miss Kentucky as a fulfillment of her truest and best self. Beyond the confidence she’s earned, Elle also realizes the honor and privilege it is to carry Kentucky with her at all times. Graceful, elegant, compassionate, Elle is no caricature of a beauty queen—she’s the real deal, natural hair, hometown girl and all.

When she walks onto the stage at Miss USA, Kentucky will be putting its best foot forward.

The Miss USA pageant will be broadcast on the FYI Network and streamed live on Hulu on Monday, November 29 at 8:00 p.m. EST. Viewers can vote for their state’s representative on the Miss USA website to put their contestant in the running for the Peoples’ Choice award.


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