When you think of the University of Kentucky, what is the first thing you think of? You probably thought of our basketball team, the Gatton Student Center, or maybe the William T. Young Library, but there is one thing UK has a few of that you might not know — pageant queens. Most people know of Elle Smith, a recent UK graduate who won the title of Miss Kentucky USA and went on to become Miss USA and compete in Miss Universe, but there was a new queen crowned from UK that you should all get to know.
Meet Gabriella Hembree. The 18-year-old freshman from Carrollton, Kentucky was recently crowned Miss Kentucky Teen USA. Hembree is an active member of Phi Mu sorority and is studying biology on the pre-med track. On top of all this, she is currently training for Miss Teen USA, which will be taking place later this year.
Hembree started competing in pageants when she was 8 years old. “I started pretty young and as a kid, I thought it would be fun to be on stage and dress up,” Hembree said. She begged her mom to allow her to compete for a long time, and when she finally said yes, they were both hooked and haven’t looked back since.
“As I have gotten older, my reasons for competing have definitely changed,” Hembree said about maturing through pageantry. “I have gained my closest friends through competing in pageants that I know will be in my life forever”.
Although Hembree has been competing for upwards of 10 years, this was only her third time competing in the Miss Kentucky Teen USA pageant system. “Third time is definitely a charm!” Hembree said about her win this past year. Each year she competed with the organization, she felt a surge of confidence that would come back stronger the following year and eventually help her to her win.
“The mission of this organization is to help girls learn how to be confidently beautiful and I have seen that mission work inside of me and continue to touch others as well,” Hembree said about the USA organization.
Despite popular opinions, pageants are much more than just walking on stage in a gown. Preparations for the competition start months before, and in Hembree’s case, she’s been preparing for this opportunity for years.
“It is so important that you do everything you can to make yourself feel prepared and at ease during the pageant,” Hembree said.
“All pageants differ, but at Miss Kentucky Teen USA, all contestants participated in an interview, onstage introduction, fitness, and evening gown,” Hembree said about the competition. After these areas of competition are completed, a top 17 is selected to re-compete in the fitness and evening gown portions. Scores are tabulated once more, and a top 6 is chosen to compete in an onstage question and from there the winner is selected.
Lucky for Hembree, her name was the one called at the end of the night.
“I cannot even put into words what it meant to me to win and hear my name called on that stage,” Hembree said about her crowning moment. “I was born and raised in Kentucky so it is such a blessing to have the opportunity to wear Kentucky across my chest this year. I want nothing more than to make my hometown of Carrollton proud."
It is no secret that for a long time, pageantry has gotten a bad reputation. Though it is often viewed as demeaning to women, Hembree would argue the complete opposite.
“Pageants help young women develop interview skills, public speaking skills, provide lifelong friendship, and most importantly, grow confidence,” Hembree said about the true value of pageantry. “Because of the growth I have had in pageants, particularly in the Miss USA system, I learned that someone else’s beauty does not take away from my own. Competing in pageants is one of the most uplifting experiences, and I would not be who I am today without that experience”.
“My year as Miss Kentucky Teen USA is going to be a big one!” Hembree said in regards to what comes next.
As mentioned earlier, she will have the opportunity to compete on the national level at Miss Teen USA later this year, as well as travel with her sister queen, Miss Kentucky USA Lizzy Nuetz to her national competition as well. Hembree will also be doing plenty of community events across the state and in her hometown.
“Overall I have so many fun and exciting things coming up this year and I am soaking every second in!” Hembree said.