As each competitor took her turn in the stylist's chair before the 2019 Miss Teen USA pageant, Kaliegh Garris put the finishing touches on her own curls, picking out the coils and scrunching in shine serum. "The night before, I finger curled every single piece of my hair in the shower, which led to a very long shower, but it was for the greater good," the 18-year-old from Connecticut tells Refinery29. “I know what I look like with straight hair, with extensions, and with my curly hair, and I feel more confident and comfortable with my natural hair." On Sunday night, Garris walked on the stage proudly wearing her curls, and she walked away with the Miss Teen USA title, marking the first time in two decades that the crown was placed on natural hair.
But she wasn't always a pro when it came to her curls. Garris grew up getting relaxers — her first was at 6 years old. “My hair was just a lot for my mom to handle, especially having three girls with curly hair in the house," she says. "I would also straighten it every day because my friends had straight, 'pretty' hair."
It took a friend from art school to change her entire perspective. “There was one day when my friend saw my curls coming in from my roots because I didn't straighten my hair very well that day, and she was like, 'You have beautiful curly hair, you should go natural.'" That one conversation encouraged Garris to grow out her hair and then go for the big chop. “My mom thought I was only going to get a little trim, but I actually chopped all the straight ends off, and ever since then, I've been natural,” the titleholder adds. At first Garris had doubts about her curly hair, but eventually she began to embrace her new look. "When I was younger, I debated if it was the right thing. But as I've gotten older, it makes me feel unique," she says.
Unfortunately, when she entered the pageant world, she had to fight against the stringent beauty standards. "There were a few naysayers saying, 'You look better with straight hair,' or 'You should put in extensions and straighten your natural hair," she says. But she shut out this criticism and went with what felt right. With that confidence, she won the title of Miss Connecticut Teen USA with her natural Afro and then the title of Miss Teen USA this past Sunday.
The titleholder hopes that her win encourages more women to follow suit. "As Miss Connecticut Teen USA, there are girls who would look at me in awe because they've always had the image of straight hair in pageants," she says. "Being able to spread the message of diversity, being yourself, and being confident in your curly, natural hair is something that I'm really looking forward to with my new national title."
Garris is picking up on the legacy of Miss USA 2016 Deshauana Barber, who chose to wear her Afro during her final walk. "If I take a small [step] by showing my natural 4c hair, the next girl will take one, and then we'll ease our natural hairstyles into the pageant community," Barber previously told Refinery29. And the progress continues with Garris, who says, "I wouldn't change my hairstyle for the world." The pageant world, included.