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Miss Alabama's first Latina contestant in 20 years sees opportunity galore

"We can change the tone and the cultural temperature by stepping up," said Montes, who got into pageants as a way to help pay for college.
Image: Kailee Grace Montes
Kailee Grace Montes made her own dresses for the competition, a skill her mother and grandmother taught her.Courtesy of Kailee Grace Montes

Kailee Grace Montes never thought of herself as a “pageant girl,” even though she grew up in Florida and Georgia where such competitions are commonplace.

Pageantry wasn’t for girls like her, she thought. It was for blonde-haired, blue-eyed girls, and girls with money, not for Puerto Rican girls from working-class backgrounds.

Yet her mindset changed when she moved to Alabama to study English and theater at the University of Mobile and she learned that competing in pageants could help with the hefty college price tag.

“Most people start competing when they’re pretty young, but I didn’t do my first pageant until 2018,” Montes, 22, told NBC News. “Besides the scholarship money, I also thought that pageants were a way I could give back to the community.”

Montes participated in the University of Mobile pageant in 2018 and 2019, earning first runner-up both years, before being crowned “Miss Mobile Bay 2019.” She was able to pay for two years of college through her winnings.

Before competition in the Miss Alabama competition, Montes was crowned Miss Mobile Bay 2019.Frank Lee Roberts Photography

“It was different than what I thought it’d be,” Montes said of her first few competitions. “I wasn’t expecting to enjoy myself or for the girls to be welcoming.”

Most recently, Montes competed in the Miss Alabama pageant, making her the first Latina in 20 years to do so.

At first, she struggled with the feeling that she didn’t belong. Of the 47 girls who participated in the pageant, only five identified as a racial minority.

“It’s a huge challenge,” Montes told NBC News during the pageant’s semifinal rounds. “I feel like I’m one of the few who understands the plights minorities have to go through.”

Many of her pageant contenders wear designer dresses that cost thousands of dollars, but Montes made her own dresses, a skill her mother and grandmother taught her.

Approximately 190,000, or about 4 percent, of Alabama residents identify as Latino, according to U.S. census data. Given this low number, it may not come as a huge surprise that Latinos go underrepresented in statewide pageant competitions.

“I could count on my hand the number of Latinas who went to my college. It was kind of a culture shock, with a different kind of environment being celebrated than the one I came from,” Montes said. “There was a sense that people were looking at me, wondering if I was here legally, or if they didn’t know I was Hispanic, they would say derogatory things about other Hispanics to me.”

Though Latinos compose a sizable amount of the U.S. population — about 58 million people identify as Hispanic — they also go underrepresented at the country’s biggest competition: Miss America. Only one Latina, Sharlene Wells Hawkes, has been crowned Miss America in the event’s 98-year history. Born in Paraguay, Hawkes won more than three decades ago, in 1985.

These numbers seem especially low when considering that pageantry can be a significant part of certain Latin America countries’ cultures. Venezuela has created more Miss Universe winners than any other country, and Colombia holds about 400 pageants each year.

The Miss Alabama competition has four rounds, including a talent performance, evening wear/social impact evaluation and interview segments, spanning four days.

Montes sang “Glitter and Be Gay” from “Candide” during this competition, but for past pageants she's sung in Spanish as a nod to her roots. Her social impact platform highlighted the Boys and Girls Club, an organization she is passionate about and has worked with in the past. She started a program at her local chapter called “Racing Readers,” which pairs older student mentors with younger students who struggle with reading.

Kailee Grace Montes' social impact platform highlighted the Boys and Girls Club, an organization she is passionate about and has worked with in the past.Courtesy of Kailee Grace Montes

At the Miss Alabama pageant this past weekend, her family gathered from all over the country to support her.

“They’re all here, watching me compete for this title,” Montes said. “They were the ones who taught me to stand up for what I believe in.”

Montes ultimately placed in the top 12 at the competition — an honor, especially for a first-time entrant. She said she still plans to enter pageants and is weighing her next steps. She hopes to continue performing and eventually go to law school.

“I hope by sharing my story I can make pageantry more approachable and available. I want to encourage other Latinas, who might not feel like they deserve to compete, to do them,” Montes said. “As Latinas, we can make any change. We can change the tone and the cultural temperature by stepping up, speaking out and working together.”