When Audrey Mendez-Hayes competed in the Mrs. Colorado beauty pageant this year, she wanted to try something radical.
Instead of wearing a long, flowing evening gown — pretty much the standard formal look for beauty pageant contestants — she decided to rock a sparkly pantsuit.
Mendez-Hayes, 35, has been competing in pageants on and off since she was a teenager, and she said she wanted to try something new in the eveningwear category.
“What I discovered the first day I competed was everything was pretty homogeneous,” Mendez-Hayes told TODAY Style. “You know, it's a mermaid gown, it's the mermaid wave and that just isn't me. And I thought to myself, well, surely if the goal of competing is to empower women and embrace women of all shapes and sizes and demographics, why not wear something you're 100% comfortable in, and feel powerful and you feel beautiful in?”
Her pageant coach warned her that wearing a pantsuit could be risky, but she decided to just go for it anyway.
Mendez-Hayes, who lives in Denver, looked fierce in the glittery pantsuit, which she wore while strutting down the stage.
She wore the suit because she loved it, but she also hopes it sends a message and encourages other contestants to expand pageant norms.
“I fell in love with the idea of hopefully inspiring other women to step outside of what they think is the typical pageant look and doing something that's really authentic,” she said. “Maybe if this keeps happening, the pageant world will evolve a bit and become a little more open-minded to different looks and different styles.”
When Mendez-Hayes stepped out in her pantsuit, the “cheering was amazing,” she told TODAY.
“There were people who were cheering for me that I didn't even know,” she said. “On prelim night, it created such a stir that people were talking about it again on finals night. I was just kind of known as 'the suit.' It was kind of fun to have a new alias.”
While the feedback from the audience was overwhelmingly positive, the judges had a mixed reaction.
“I think it was half and half,” she said. “Some of them loved it, some of them really just wanted to see a traditional gown.”
She guessed the pantsuit held her back from making the top 12, but she said that doesn't bother her at all. Going into the competition, she told herself that even if she didn’t win, she wanted to create a moment that people would remember.
“I was really, really proud to be that person who did it,” she said. “So it was really just pride and exhilaration and fun, and it was a very cheeky moment. I couldn't have been more confident and more happy in that moment, in that suit.”