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'Not a Cinderella story': Miss America contestants battle hardship to take the stage

Despite struggling with poverty, bullying and weight gain, the Miss America contestants from Washington, New Hampshire and South Carolina will represent their states in the 90th Miss America Pageant this Saturday night.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Brittney Henry is not your typical beauty queen. Raised by a single mother, Henry didn’t exactly grow up competing in pageants. She was more concerned with holding down after school jobs to help her family make ends meet than she was with performing on a stage before hundreds of people.

“I worked as many hours as I could throughout high school to help pay for our basic expenses,” Henry told “I tried hard to keep my friends in the dark about our situation but their parent’s could see how bad it really was for us. One friend’s mom bought me a prom dress and gave it to me in secret when she realized that I couldn’t afford to go to prom. I couldn’t even learn to drive because I couldn’t afford to take driver’s ed.”

Despite her difficult upbringing, Henry, 24, is now known across her state as Miss Washington, and will be one of 53 contestants in the 90th Miss America Pageant to be held in Las Vegas' Planet Hollywood on Saturday night (live on ABC at 9 p.m. ET). So how did she go from working as a janitor at the age of 15 to strutting her stuff in the nation’s most competitive beauty pageant?

It all started when she saw an ad for the Miss Sacramento pageant on her college’s scholarship bulletin board. She entered hoping to win money towards her degree, but with no cash to spare on gowns and shoes, she borrowed nearly everything she wore on stage, with the exception of that generously donated high school prom dress.

Competing against girls with years of experience on the pageant circuit, Henry, much to her surprise, took the crown. In the following years, she went on to compete in other pageants, winning several other titles along with enough money to pay for two years of her college education.

And then last year, Henry achieved her biggest win yet — first place in the Miss Washington competition, and a spot at this year’s Miss America Pageant, the first to include an online vote to name one finalist "America's choice."

“Despite my successes, this is not a Cinderella story,” says Henry, who now holds a bachelors degree in education and plans to study for her master’s in the coming year. “I am still faced with huge personal challenges. Just six months ago, my closest aunt died of a drug overdose. But when I speak to kids from families like mine, I tell them that they can control their future. And I pound it in their heads that college is where you can become anything you want to be.”

In dazzling gowns and sexy bikinis, 53 contestants competed for the pageant’s coveted crown.

That Henry even made it to college is still astonishing to her. It was only when a friend’s parents asked her where she was applying – and then signed her up and paid for the SATs – that she even thought about going to college.

Miss New Hampshire Regan Elizabeth Hartley

She secured a place at California State University, Sacramento and spent the summer before her first year playing the violin at Seattle’s Pikes Place Market, with a sign reading “help me get to college.”

“It was only when I got to college, that I realized how big of a deal it was that I was there,” she said. “I remember one night in high school, when I should have been studying for a math final the next day, I was hiding in the closet with my baby sister, trying to keep her quiet as her father threatened my mom with a knife. That is just one example of the type of challenges that many kids from tough backgrounds face. The pageantry has given me a platform to talk about my struggles, and who is in greater need of a role model than kids from struggling families?”

Defeating the bullies
Henry isn’t the only Miss America hopeful to have overcome a difficult period in her life. Miss New Hampshire, Regan Hartley, spent most of her high school years being bullied by girls she thought were her friends. After threatening phone calls and a lot of rough talk on the Internet, Hartley was attacked by several girls in the school cafeteria, ending up with a concussion and a skull fracture.

She immediately transferred to a private school and in her senior year signed up for a local pageant, hoping to win scholarship money for college. It took 16 local competitions until she won her first title, along with $7,000. In the last three years, Hartley has won $30,000 through pageants to put towards her degree in marketing.

As Miss New Hampshire, she has been active in encouraging the state to pass a new law protecting the victims of bullying.

“When I was being bullied I lost who I was,” said Hartly, who is working with MTV on a documentary about bullying. “It was by far the lowest time of my life. I felt no one loved me and had no will to live. Then I started doing pageants and each time I stepped on stage, I got a piece of myself back.”

'Healthy lifestyle'
If you look at a photo of contestant Bree Boyce from several years ago, she doesn't look like the beauty queen she does today. For years she struggled with her weight, topping the scales at 234 pounds. But that was before a wakeup call from her doctor pushed her to lose 110 pounds over three years.

Boyce, 22, went on to become Miss South Carolina, even winning the swimsuit competition in her state’s pageant.

"I'm not on any kind of crazy diet; I'm just living a healthy lifestyle, and that's what I try to promote," Boyce told in July. The pageant contestant was recently featured in People magazine in a feature on people who have lost more than half their size in weight.

What all three of these women have in common is their gratitude to the Miss America Organization for giving them an opportunity to publicly discuss their platforms, which each holds so close to her heart.

“If I don’t win Miss America, I will still come back and continue the work I am doing with underprivileged youth,” said Henry. “When I was growing up, I would never have thought that I would walk across that stage in Las Vegas. Now that it’s a reality, I want to bring this huge dream to other girls.”