Haley Begay Talks Winning Miss Indiana, Career Aspirations & Giving Back

There is any number of reasons why a college student may take a semester off school — medical reasons, a family emergency, financial issues. Haley Begay, however, currently a 20-year-old junior at Indiana University, took off last fall semester for a unique and undeniably fun reason. In June 2017, she was crowned Miss Indiana. That meant that overnight, her schedule was booked solid.

“I was crowned Miss Indiana, went back to my hotel room, ate some McDonalds and was up at 5 a.m. the next day for appearances,” Begay says. “The job starts immediately.”

Originally from Pittsboro, Begay, a tomboy and sports girl at heart, admits that hair and make-up were never really her forte.

“I loved to run around outside and play sports,” Begay says. Nevertheless, the pageant life intrigued her.

“Growing up, I sat mesmerized as I watched the Miss America pageant,” she says.

Though she never dreamed that one day she would be striking a pose on a stage.

“When I was younger, I was overweight and had terrible anxiety,” Begay says.

Then one day, she received a letter from the National American Miss organization, inviting her to enter a pageant.

“I was an awkward, insecure 12-year-old with crooked teeth, yet something inside of me was dying to get on stage and perform,” says Begay, who convinced her parents to let her give it a try. They supported any idea that might boost their daughter’s self-confidence.

“We were clueless as to what to do or where to start, but we had fun,” Begay says. “Truly, that was the turning point in my life.”

Begay started competing regularly in pageants beginning in sixth grade. (The National American Miss division is for ages 3-20, though teens can transition prior to 20, as Begay did.) The National American Miss pageants only occur once a year, over the Fourth of July weekend, which enables young girls to live balanced lives. For Begay, that meant playing lots of volleyball, basketball and soccer.

Miss America or Miss USA are considered two separate tracks, and females can participate in both. Most girls, however, pick one or the other. Miss USA, which does not have a talent portion, is a pageant that focuses more on promoting contestants’ brands whereas Miss America, a collegiate pageant, attracts girls seeking scholarship money. For instance, contestants can earn preliminary awards for different aspects such as interview, talent or swimsuit, each worth $250. The winner of Miss Indiana wins $10,000, all of which goes toward school. Miss America earns $50,000 on top of a 6-figure salary for the year.

There are 36 local pageants across the state of Indiana. They are run the same as state ones but are just one-day long. If a contestant doesn’t win one local competition, she can travel to another and compete there. Anyone who wins a local title gets to compete in the Miss Indiana pageant, which is a week-long event that’s held in Zionsville.

On June 17, 2017, Begay was crowned Miss Indiana — one of the youngest to hold the title as well as one of the first Native Americans to represent the Hoosier state. That meant she scored a ticket to Atlantic City, New Jersey, in September 2017, to compete for the Miss America crown — a grueling but glorious experience.

“It was insane the number of hours we rehearsed,” Begay says. “We often went to bed at 2 a.m. and were back up at 6. There were times when we’d be in the ballroom rehearsing and girls would sleep on the hardwood floor.”

Following rehearsals, contestants were required to attend appearances and dinners. Though it was exhausting, Begay loved every minute of it.

“I struggle to find adjectives that accurately describe that experience,” says Begay, who befriended her fellow contestants and has since attended several of their weddings.

“People often assume that the girls were mean, but that was not my experience at all,” Begay says. “Yes, we were competing, but we had so much fun.”

The pageants taught Begay how to carry herself both socially and academically as she gained confidence to give class presentations and make friends with a variety of people. By the time she completed high school, she felt comfortable talking to any adult, whether that be for a class, a job interview or anything else.

“I found my passion for public speaking early in life,” Begay says. “The pageants got me ahead of the game, maturity-wise compared to my peers.”

Still, Begay vividly recalls the dark days of self-loathing. She encourages girls to find something they’re passionate about — whether that’s pageants or painting, karate or cooking — and work at improving it every day.

“Once you get good at something, you start feeling good about yourself,” Begay says. “You also make friends, gain a new skill and learn that it’s okay— even necessary — to fail.”

Though Begay admits that she used to compare herself to others, it’s a tactic she gave up long ago when she recognized the futile nature of doing so.

“Besides, I didn’t have time to look at social media and compare myself to Miss Washington or whomever,” Begay says. “I was too busy serving my state as Miss Indiana.”

Busy is an understatement. For starters, she worked on developing her platform issue, which is “Don’t Silence the Violence: A Voice for Children of Domestic Violence.” It’s a topic she has felt passionate about ever since she toured the domestic violence abuse shelter in Danville. She also continues to raise funds for shelters such as Sheltering Wings.

In addition, after being crowned Miss Indiana, Begay met with a personal trainer to prepare for the swimsuit portion of the competition as well as a talent coach to work on singing. She also met with dress sponsors and had an appearance nearly every day. Sometimes those appearances involved reading to a group of elementary children. Other times she was invited to speak at a golf fundraiser or sing at a ballgame. Often she was asked to deliver a motivational speech where she shared how her brave mother battled and beat brain cancer.

“Doctors told us she wasn’t going to make it, but she endured surgery, chemo and radiation and is now cancer-free,” says Begay, who tells audiences of all ages not to give up hope even in the face of hopelessness.

Once a female wins Miss Indiana, she can never compete in Miss America again, so Begay plans to take a break from the pageant circuit and focus on college. Going forward, she will, however, likely judge and do speaking engagements that are pageant-related.

Though she still has the option of vying for the Miss USA crown, Begay, who is studying broadcast journalism and Spanish at IU, hopes to land a job as either a bilingual news broadcaster or sideline sports reporter. Begay recently returned to the Bloomington campus where she seamlessly blends into a sea of coeds.

Though few people know that she spent the past year wearing a sash and crown, if someone asks her to share a fun fact about herself, she shares that she won Miss Indiana.

From now until forever, that’s bound to be a great conversation starter.

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