Riverhead teen headed to national pageant in Orlando

While checking the mail one day in September, Kaylah Swann received a letter informing her that she had been selected to compete in the 2017 Miss Teen New York Pageant.

Having never participated in a pageant before, Kaylah, 15, immediately assumed the letter was junk mail. But after looking into it, she realized it was legitimate offer and decided to participate.

A few weeks later, the Riverhead High School sophomore and her grandmother traveled to Union City, N.J., where Kaylah and 249 other girls had interviews with the judges. Two weeks after that she received a callback that led to another interview and participating in the casual and formal wear portions of the competition at the New York LaGuardia Airport Marriott.

“It was really fun,” Kaylah said. “I got to meet new kids who were friendly and helpful. Some of them had pageant experience, but most of them didn’t, so I had a lot in common with the other people.”

Not only did Kaylah leave Miss Teen New York with new friends, she left with a qualifying ticket to the national pageant in Orlando, Fla., Dec. 13-18 — something she said was “very surprising.”

The top 10 competitors in the 13-15 age group are given the opportunity to advance to the national level. Kaylah was one of the last girls to be called, said her mom, Cherise Hofsiss.

“I couldn’t believe how she spoke on stage because she’s always ‘I’ll never be in a play or be on stage because I can’t talk in front of people,’” Ms. Hofsiss said. “But she did so good.”

Kaylah will spend most of her time in Orlando in competition. She said she doesn’t have many specifics yet, but was told it would be similar to her experience in New York, including an interview and modeling casual and formal wear.

So far, she said, the interview portions have been the most challenging part. During her first interview she got the question — What makes you unique? — in advance and could prepare her answer. But during the callback she was asked questions she had to answer on the spot, including one about important family traditions.

Although Kaylah was one of the top 10 competitors, she wasn’t among the top five, so her trip to Florida isn’t completely paid for.

As a single mother, Ms. Hofsiss is looking for any help to get the family to Orlando. Kaylah’s grandmother, Paula Hofsiss, has created a GoFundMe campaign, “2017 Miss Teen Nationals,” and the family hopes to host a fundraiser or find sponsors among local businesses.

Kaylah said she’s excited to move up to the pageant’s next level, and is already preparing.

“I wanted to try something new,” she said of the experience. “I never ever thought I’d do pageants or be in one. Once I got the chance, I decided to do it to see what it was about and it helped to build my confidence.”

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Photo: Kaylah Swann holds mementos from her first pageant experience, in which she was named one of the top 10 contestants in New York. She qualified to compete next month in the national pageant in Florida. (Credit: Nicole Smith)