Kentucky's newest It Girl, Elle Smith, described her crowning of Miss USA 2021 as a fairytale. In a matter of hours, she ascended from Miss Kentucky to Miss USA on Nov. 29 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, at the 70th Miss USA pageant.
"I was not expecting it at all," she said. "I was holding hands with North Carolina and Texas. My earring had just fallen out. It was surreal."
Born and raised in Springfield, Ohio, less than three hours from campus, Elle said she grew up with very little attachment to the University of Kentucky. Although Samuel Smith, Elle's father, bleeds scarlet and gray for Ohio State University, Elle toured and applied to many other universities.
"As soon as we would arrive at different schools, she would immediately express her disinterest," Lydia Smith, Elle's mother, said. "But when we came to Kentucky, she lit up and began engaging in conversation with the tour guide. I knew this was it."
As a freshman, Elle said she was unsure of which career path to pursue. After speaking to her adviser about her love for writing and history, she took Introduction to Journalism and continued on from there.
Elle did not choose to pursue journalism as a career until her sophomore year, when a professor chose her as the only sophomore in her class to anchor in a mock TV newsroom.
"I had no idea why my professor chose me, but as soon as I got behind the desk, I felt so comfortable," she said. "It was then that solidified my decision."
Her involvement in extracurricular activities helped her navigate her interests even further. She participated in the UK Student News Network, the Kentucky Kernel and KRNL, WRFL and the National Association of Black Journalists. Elle also prioritized internships while she was in school. She worked with UK Sports Video, UK SEC Network, LEX 18, WKYT and Fox News.
Elle graduated in May 2020 with a degree in broadcast journalism and a minor in political science.
"Even in she had a million things going on throughout the day, she handles each task with such grace, you would have no idea how busy her life actually is," Elle's best friend, Jenna Griffin, said.
Elle expressed gratitude for the friends, family and professors that helped her maintain her hectic lifestyle, naming UK College of Communication and Information Associate Professor Kakie Urch as one of her greatest supporters.
"Everyone speaks highly of Kakie Urch for a reason. She is incredible and will do anything for her students. I don't think I would be where I am today without her," Elle said.
Elle's parents also feel that her success can be attributed to UK.
"She developed confidence,
she found mentors by being involved on campus and she learned how to engage with people on a different level. Her engagement became more intentional," Lydia said.
Elle said that the development of her confidence was a gradual process. She described herself as shy and timid while a student at UK. She said that her career as a reporter after graduation helped her feel more self-assured.
Her parents never guess Elle would build a career by combining journalism and pageantry. Lydia believed Elle would become a Broadway performer due to her ability to memorize entire musicals at a young age, and Samuel assumed her natural athletic inclination would lead her to become a professional athlete.
"From a mother's perspective, she grew up surrounded by women," Lydia said. "Her grandmother and mother were strong. One can only hope that their daughter will pursue her dreams."
After graduation, Elle became a journalist for WHAS11, an ABC-affiliated television station in Louisville, Kentucky. Months after starting her career, she announced her intention to compete for Miss Kentucky USA 2021
Her career in journalism gave her the experience necessary to endure the bright spotlight her success brings. Griffin said she was initially concerned for her friend about the constant publicity and potential for harsh critique but notes that clearly Elle's career path prepared her for the position.
After winning Miss USA, Elle Smith immediately headed to Eilat, Israel to compete in Miss Universe 2021. She placed in the Top Ten. Since then, she has been fulfilling her duties as Miss USA after moving to Los Angeles. According to the Miss USA website, the organization is committed to maintaining charitable alliances, using advocacy and the power of volunteering to make an immense impact on various charities. In addition to charity work, Miss USA is expected to attend various premieres and events as a representative of the organization.
Her friends and family have great aspirations for Elle in her new position, expressing that they hope to see her hold her new title with integrity and use her platform to advocate for cervical cancer awareness, women and marginalized populations.
Elle aspires to prove that pageants are more than just looking pretty — she wants to make the position look fun and diverse. With female empowerment at the center of her platform, Elle plans to shatter traditional expectations and see future Miss USA pageants be increasingly representative of all people in the United States.
Elle said her advice to UK students is to not give up on their goals and maintain confidence in themselves.
Elle said that confidence ‚— especially for women — is a power they have within themselves that can be encouraged and strengthened.
"Believe in yourself always," she said. "There is always going to be someone in a position of power who will doubt you, whether it is a professor, a boss or someone else. Trust yourself and that you can be successful."