Here’s How I Went From Detroit Science Geek to NYC Pageant Chic—and Scored a Win for Heart Health Awareness

Like most science nerds, I’ve always been a little more “geek” than “chic”—unibrow and all. I’m an introverted, quiet girl by nature; I overthink pretty much everything. But three months before I packed up my big stack of books (and small wardrobe) and made the move from my hometown of Detroit to New York City for grad school, a tiny miracle happened: I won a year of personal mentorship with supermodel (and co-founding editor of The Glow Up) Veronica Webb.

That’s when my ‘glow up’ journey began.

At the time, Webb was serving as the keynote speaker for the Detroit-based nonprofit Jackets for Jobs’ “Sweet 16 Anniversary Celebration.” Inspired by the organization’s effort to empower low-income Detroiters to succeed in the workplace, Webb offered a year of personal mentorship to one lucky Detroiter—and that Detroiter ended up being me.

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Geek Meets Guru—and the ‘Glow Up’ Begins

Veronica Webb, left, and Ashley Lyles
Photo: Ashley Lyles

Against all odds—and the expectations of my family and my colleagues—I decided to enter a beauty pageant. I’ve always admired the type of woman who walks into a room and captivates everyone’s attention. With Webb’s encouraging words ringing in my ear, I gathered the courage to move past simply watching my role model from afar. I’ve set out on a journey to be her.

Webb’s fast-talking, high-energy tour through fashion was like Revenge Body by Khloe and Model Mom on steroids. Whether I was interning at her blog, Webb on the Fly, or sitting behind the scenes during one of her shoots, I learned the ins and outs of walking the runway, doing a photo shoot, and all things glam. It was an incredible whirlwind full of faux lashes, stilettos, hair extensions, and makeup—all in preparation for my debut on stage.

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At first, I thought pageants were all about big, wavy hair, pretty dresses, and even answering “world peace” into a microphone. But now, I know a pageant is so much more than that. And my pageant experience wasn’t just about “glowing up”—it was an incentive to lead a healthier lifestyle.

I initially competed in the Miss America Organization’s Miss Bronx/Miss Manhattan pageant in October 2017—where I won a People’s Choice Award. But eager to stick to what I’d learned during my initial pageant preparation and year of mentorship, I eventually decided to switch from the Miss America system to International Pageants, setting out on my own to compete for Miss New York International 2020.

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Here’s why: I found that, like myself, most young women enter pageants with the hope of raising awareness about issues they truly care about. In my case, I wanted to raise awareness about heart health; as fate would have it, International Pageants has a national strategic alliance with the American Heart Association and the Go Red for Women movement.

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Much to my excitement, I recently took home the title of Miss New York International 2020. The title provides me with the unique opportunity to cultivate poise, interview skills, fitness, and talent, all while championing a cause that means a lot to me.

Arrest the Risk: Heart Health Awareness

Just three months before I began preparing for my first pageant, my father suffered from sudden cardiac arrest while doing his morning workout at our local gym (a story I’ve previously shared as a HuffPost campus editor-at-large). He fell face down on a moving treadmill—and died for nearly five minutes.

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It was a Monday morning in May 2016, just a year after he’d returned to the gym with a new exercise habit. The staff began to panic—we learned later that none of them could remember how to perform CPR or how to use an AED (an automated external defibrillator). Thankfully, an angel intervened: a medical resident took charge of the situation and saved my father’s life.

My father still can’t remember what happened at the gym that day. All he knows is that he woke up in the back of an ambulance surrounded by paramedics. He heard one of them say, “You’ve been dead for the last five minutes. We are trying to help you.”

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I dealt with the terrible news in my own way: I talked to the doctors and did some homework of my own. I learned that my father’s heart stopped beating without any warning. The electrical workings of his heart malfunctioned, and then, his heartbeat became irregular. The blood flow to the rest of his body was impaired, causing him to become unresponsive—like a car that shuts down unexpectedly because the fuel pipe is no longer getting fuel to the engine.

Soon enough, I realized that my father wasn’t alone. This isn’t just an issue that tore my family’s lives apart that summer; sudden cardiac arrest is unfortunately common. Each year, 350,000 Americans experience sudden cardiac arrest: their hearts stop. It’s shocking that nearly 90 percent of those people do not survive. In most cases, what saves a person from dying from sudden cardiac arrest is something that can be taught: CPR.

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My father’s relationship with exercise sounds like many of our fathers: In his younger years, he enjoyed running and took a jog around the neighborhood three or four times a week with his friends. Working out and eating healthy has always been important to him. But as he got older and the demands of work and family grew more intense, he gradually let his healthy lifestyle habits go—until he abandoned them altogether.

Watching my father recover from his cardiac arrest made a big impact on me. With fire under my belt, I set out to lead a healthier lifestyle, too. It was a good time for me to change: admittedly, I wasn’t in the best shape. My graduation day at Michigan State University was exactly one week before my father’s health scare. I was a busy professional writing and a premed student—but after four years of pizza and soda at late-night study sessions, I was ready to take on healthier habits.

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Photo: Ashley Lyles

So, I hired a personal trainer and sought out nutrition counseling. I sat down with experts and I learned how to maintain a balanced diet. After all, for years, we’ve heard the mantra: weight loss is 80 percent diet and 20 percent exercise. I learned how to read a food label, which ingredients to avoid, and the importance of eating five small meals a day. After a month, I began to see results: my clothes fit better, and I have more energy. In about six months, I shed about 25 lbs. and went from a size 8 to about a 2/4.

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It felt great. I felt accomplished—but it didn’t feel like enough. I wanted to use what I knew about CPR to help others and raise awareness about what happened to my father.

That’s why I decided to make my pageant platform: Arrest the Risk: Heart Health Awareness.

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The Glam—or, How to ‘Glow Up’

To get ready for a pageant, you not only need to build your confidence—you need to grow as a person and lay a solid foundation within yourself. Once you develop your resume, work hard to build a fit, healthy body, and seek out quality experiences, the glitz comes naturally—and it suddenly feels easy to learn how to walk in high heels and put on your lashes.

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It’s no longer enough to be a pretty face without strong credentials. I believe education is powerful—and I hope to use my platform to encourage girls and young women to forge their own path.

For example, I didn’t venture into the world of glam until I had a bachelor’s degree; in fact, I was wrapping up my master’s degree in journalism from New York University.

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The first order of business? Headshots! I flew to Atlanta, where I was lucky enough to work with Matt and Meredith Boyd, a talented photography and hair and makeup duo.

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Next: my wardrobe! In high school, I was a private school girl, dependent on my plaid skirt and messy bun. By college, I was leafing through magazines and trying to recreate my favorite celebs’ looks. But by the end of the semester, during exams, I’d neglected my sense of style in pursuit of an A-grade.

Fortunately, I’d taken note of all that I’d learned while interning for Webb on the Fly. I was told that from the second I walked in the room, the judging would begin, so I needed to look my best. I went shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, and several other stores, gathering clothes for every phase of the pageant. My friends and I looked for an outfit for orientation, interview, and my opening number. It took us well over three hours to get everything just right—all while I wore my pageant shoes, practicing my walk.

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Up Next: The Pageant Interview

I was all butterflies when it came time to interview, but I was excited to share the work I’d been doing to spread awareness about heart health and the growth I’d experienced as a person during my pageant prep. I talked about serving as a medical journalism fellow for the Cardiovascular Research Foundation and joining the Foundation’s Women’s Heart Health Initiative Advisory Committee.

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I also shared how I’d put my training at NYU SHERP to use as I spent well over a year reporting on cardiology and traveling to medical conferences like the European Society of Cardiology Congress in Paris, the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions in Chicago, and the Cardiovascular Research Foundation’s TCT Conference in San Diego, among others.

I’m even more eager to put everything I’ve learned to use—which I can now do as Miss New York International 2020.

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As Miss New York International 2020, I will have the opportunity to compete for the title of Miss International 2020 in Tennessee. The title comes with the opportunity to serve as a national spokesperson for the American Heart Association and the Go Red for Women movement.

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In the meantime, I’m attending a number of events hosted by the American Heart Association and advocacy groups. My hope is to share my dad’s story and to inspire the next generation to take better care of their health early on. I recently attended the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association’s Know Diabetes by Heart Type 2: Heart-to-Heart event. There, Angela Bassett shared her passion for raising awareness about heart health and encouraged others to take care of their health.

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All in all, I realize that ‘glowing up’ is a process. There are some girls, of course, who commit themselves to pageant and media training for years; until the national competition, I’m committed to the ‘glow up,’ but I’m also exploring the world of journalism, media, and fashion before heading off to medical school. After all, being cultured isn’t something that you master—it’s something you cultivate over time.

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