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"I entered a beauty pageant on a whim—and won!" Read this GL girl's surprising story

In the middle of a stressful senior year, Aneesa Sheikh, 18, signed up for a state beauty pageant on a whim...and won. Now, after competing last November for the Miss Teen USA national title, she reflects on how an unlikely experience uncovered her most authentic self. 

"And the winner of Miss Teen USA 2020 is...Aneesa Sheikh!" Staring into the blinding stage lights and a beaming audience, it felt like I was dreaming. As former winners placed a crown on my head and draped a sash across my gown, the scent of the bouquet of roses in my arms reminded me that yes, this was *really* happening.

Let me say this right up front: I never thought of myself as someone who'd ever be in a pageant. My senior year, I was captain of the varsity figure skating team and captain of the debate competition squad. My makeup bag was basically three lip glosses and a mascara months past its prime. My closet is stuffed with sneakers, not sequins.

When I wasn't doing school, sports or debate squad, I loved singing and songwriting and hanging out with my huge family. But, sadly, my schedule was so packed, I'd often be playing guitar in the car on the way to my before-sunrise practice sessions on the ice and doing my math homework on the bus to speech competitions. My life senior year was crazy, and tbh, super stressful.

One afternoon, as I was settling into a study session at a coffee shop, I looked up and there it was: a flyer to enter the Miss Michigan Teen USA pageant. I'd heard of the pageant before—a friend of mine from debate club had done pageants her whole life—but I'd never actually thought about being in one.

I was supposed to be focusing on advanced chemistry, but I couldn't get the idea out of my head. It just sounded so fun, so girly, so cool. And, unlike skating, it would be just for kicks, no pressure to win or get to the next level. So when I should have been calculating the equilibria of insoluble salts, I instead found myself hitting send on my pageant application.

I didn't tell a soul until the acceptance letter arrived in the mail a month later. I was *officially* going to be competing in a beauty pageant! Some people were happy (my friends all thought it was awesome) and others, not so much. A lot of people, including those I respected, expressed disappointment that I was "wasting my time" on something so seemingly frivolous or inconsequential.

But I noticed something in myself. For once, I wasn't so concerned about the opinions of others. I wasn't doing this because I felt like I had to. I was doing it because it just felt fun. I picked up my color-coded senior year planner, took a deep breath and crossed off some of my usual activities and penciled in pageant prep instead. There was no turning back now.

Studying up

A pageant is a competition, and that means you can't just show up and expect to ace it without trying. Soccer players dribble and shoot on the practice field before a game, and actors hold dress rehearsals before opening night.

Except with a pageant, it's a little different. Of course, there are skills to master (walking in high heels with perfect posture? Not as easy as it looks...), but the *real* test is in discovering what makes you, well, you.

Just like I had a skating coach, I decided to get a pageant coach. Her number one piece of advice? The best contestants are genuine. She pushed me—and I pushed myself—to think how I could be authentically Aneesa when I stepped onto the stage.

Related: Aneesa Sheikh is discovering her new normal

And that's when it hit me: I'd never before in my life been asked to think about who I *really* was. With figure skating, I was mastering technique and choreography, With debate, I was memorizing facts and research. With the pageant, I only had one thing: me. I started meditating each morning, journaling each evening and, instead of looking down at my books in the car, looking out the window and noticing the world around me.

Dressing the part

As I dug deeper into myself, I also dug deep into my closet...and realized I needed a new dress. A pageant dress.

So one Saturday afternoon, I stepped into a prom store packed wall-to-wall with shine, sparkles, satin and shimmer. Initially overwhelmed, my eyes finally focused on a flicker of yellow in the corner of the shop that sold vintage gowns. The dress came into view. It was love at first sight.

When I got closer, I realized that the dress was 2007 couture. It had some wear and tear: scrapes, lost beads, holes at the bottom. It was airy and flowy, with a chiffon cape—definitely not the structured grown-up gown I'd first pictured. And, fun fact, I never wear yellow.

But I bought the dress anyway. I didn't care that it was old (there was nothing my trusty sewing machine couldn't fix) or that it wasn't the style I'd imagined. There's a quote by Muhammad Ali that really inspires me: "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." The dress just captured that to me. That dress reflected who I wanted to be when I strutted onto the pageant stage.

Trusting the process

As the countdown got closer, I dedicated myself to the pageant more than ever. I wanted to DIY as much as possible, so I bedazzled the entirety of my yellow dress with glimmering crystals. Next, I found a $30 pair of white sneakers with tiny, sparkly bows on Amazon, perfect for my interview portion. Then I designed a sparkly bow for the back of my gown to create a cohesive fashion element.

Professional hair and makeup? Even in a pageant, still not my thing. I wanted to express myself (that was the point, after all), so I learned to apply the exact right amount of gold eyeshadow and inner-eye pink sparkle.

I was never the girl who had time for self-care. But I wanted to present my best self when I got on that stage, so I made a commitment to sleeping more, eating what my body intuitively needed and working on my physical, mental and emotional health. As the pageant neared, I felt like a new person.

In those final days, I stepped away from the mirror and looked inward. Pageants aren't all sequins and heels. There's an onstage question where you have to share insight on a controversial topic with the judges, and an interview where you have to answer thoughtfully constructed questions about who you are and what you stand for.

As I thought about what I wanted to say, I started to realize that I'd always defined myself by the activities I did, not by the qualities I have. Though I love figure skating, I really loved the feeling of losing myself in a piece of art and getting to add my own style and flair with each performance. And sure, debate team was important to me, but that's because I craved the rush of connecting with other people through conversation on deep, substantive topics.

After a lot of thought, I started to realize that all of this came together for me in my love of singing, playing guitar and songwriting. That was the area of my life I needed to cultivate.

Crowning achievement

After months of hard work, pageant day finally came. My mom and I drove over to the convention center where the pageant was held. She gave me a hug and wished me luck...and then I was on my own.

We started rehearsals first thing in the morning and ran through the pageant three times. I don't know if I was nervous or if the stage was freezing, but I couldn't stop shaking. Thankfully, as we got more comfortable and learned where to stand and how to walk, I started to loosen up and get to know my fellow contestants.

When the rehearsals were over, it was time to begin the preliminary round of the competition. I figured that the preliminaries were the only round I would participate in, so I gave it my all as I strutted down the runway and yelled out my name to the audience. Heading backstage, I thought about how much fun it all was and, well, assumed my night would soon be over.

After a quick break, they got us all back onstage. As I smiled under the blaring lights, I had no idea what was about to happen. They announced the Top 15. Eight girls in, they said my name! I barely had time to react because I had to head backstage and quickly prepare for the finals.

As I nervously touched up my makeup, I noticed my strapless dress was starting to slip. But thanks to some double-sided tape (and a super sweet fellow contestant who took time out of her own final preparations to assist a newbie), I managed to hustle to the stage just as they called my name.

And that's when I sashayed down the runway...and stumbled, snagging a hole in my gown (yup, high heels are not my thing)! I recovered quickly, but felt I had blown it for sure.

A quick two-minute wardrobe change got me into my fitness wear—and then it was back in my evening gown for the Top 5 announcement. At this point it was total tunnel vision.

When they called my name fourth, I had to instantly get into game mode for the onstage question: "What do you feel the long-term effects of technology will be on your generation?" Thankfully, this part was easier than the walking-in-heels thing—these were the kinds of big questions I'd prepared for on debate team.

Then, it was time to announce the winner. Previous titleholders headed onstage, crowns and sashes in hand, as they announced each runner-up. It was one name. Then another name. Then another. I couldn't believe it but soon it was just me and one other girl. When they announced my name as the winner, I was completely overwhelmed with emotions—happiness, exhaustion and, mostly, surprise.

I have to be was probably the best day of my life. Sure, winning was exciting, but it wasn't everything. The reason I did the pageant was because, well, for the first time, I just wanted to have fun, not to win. And, ironically, I think the fact I was my authentic, happy, healthy self *is* the reason I won. Well, and a little bit of luck.

So consider this your permission slip to audition for the school musical when you think you can't carry a tune or sign up for tennis camp when you've never even picked up a racquet. That activity that's consuming you with stress and pressure to live up to expectations? Take a break. And the idea that's just burning in the back of your head? Go for it. Take it from me, you'll never know what stage you might shine on unless you try.

Hey, girl! Just wanted to let you know that this story originally ran in our December/January 2021 issue. Want more? Read the print mag for free *today* when you click HERE.

Image: Edwin Shaw.

by Aneesa Sheikh as told to Katherine Hammer | 2/12/2021