Zhao wins Miss Tennessee Teen pageant


Minnow_Photo // Instagram

Annie Zhao (11) smiles brightly for a headshot before the Miss TN Teen pageant. Zhao was ecstatic to compete in this prestigious competition.

Beautiful gowns flow as the teenagers of Tennessee prepare for the annual Miss TN Teen USA pageant. Annie Zhao (11) was one of the many girls chosen to compete for this prestigious title. 

Zhao began her journey in pageantry in 2018 when she saw Catriona Gray strut across the stage after winning Miss Universe. 

“I was stunned by her confidence, grace, the things she has done for her community and her compassion,” Zhao said. “I thought that this was very interesting. This isn’t just about looks; this is about your entire character and what you do for others.”

Inspired, Zhao later submitted an application to the Miss Tennessee Teen USA pageant. 

“I applied a long time ago and so when the email came, I was caught off guard,” Zhao said. “I remember being very happy and clueless. I’ve never been in this type of environment and it was all very new to me.”

Her mother, Yingjuan Zhao, was ecstatic to learn that her daughter was chosen as a finalist for the prestigious event. 

“I was very happy because the entire process was done by Annie.” Yingjuan Zhao said. “As a parent, I saw my child becoming more independent and growing up, making that first step.”

Getting ready for pageants is no easy task. Contestants have to prepare their mind, body and soul for months before the fateful day. 

“The application is what you first submit to become a finalist,” Zhao said. “After that step, you begin to prepare for the pageant. This would include wardrobe, your dress, your fitness outfit. You have to have your walk … it would be preferable to not limp on the stage and know how to walk in your heels.”

It is common for contestants to have coaches to assist them in preparing. Zhao, however, has an unlikely story of how she met her coach. 

“I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the preparations for this pageant,” Zhao said. “I was very lucky along the way. I saw that people were getting their gowns and thought, ‘maybe I should get my gown.’ I walked into the dress shop. The dress shop owner thought I had a lot of potential. So, she referred me to her friend who is a pageant coach that has competed before and wanted to help me.”

In pageants, there are many categories that allow the girls to express themselves. Zhao says that her favorites would be the “Evening Gown” and “Interview” categories. The evening gown category features the contestants strutting down the runway with award-winning smiles and unwavering confidence. 

“People call me a natural walker,” Zhao said. “When I first walked into that dress shop, one of the main reasons the shop owner referred me was because of my walk. I never practiced before, and I didn’t have a coach. I was just watching Catriona Gray walk on the stage, and I would mimic that. When I was at the shop, I walked as if I were her. That would be my favorite part of ‘Evening Gown’ … the walk and the confidence I have in that gorgeous dress.”

The interview category calls for the contestant to introduce themselves and talk about some of their achievements to the judges.

“Initially I hated the interview because I thought it was the worst thing ever,” Zhao said. “You have to talk about yourself within two minutes, which is barely any time if you think about it, but you can actually express a lot after practice and getting to know yourself. You get better at talking about yourself and getting to know who you are on the inside and who you want to be.”

After winning the crown, the victor begins her duty by helping the community around her.

”I would love to share the interviews that my team and I have done through the journalist association,” Zhao said. “We interview people of all professions, races and lifestyles. I want to show the people of TN the limitless opportunities that they might not notice or know about. Not a lot of people know that you can be a personal shopper or that you can have a really nice lifestyle, make great money and enjoy it.”

Zhao also mentioned her love for beauty and how she would share her knowledge of makeup and personal care with the community. 

“I struggled for the longest time on how to do makeup,” Zhao said. “I always looked like I was beat up and I had to learn the hard way. I want to share with everyone what I found helpful.”

Though this is the start of Zhao’s journey, she has learned a lot through her preparations. Her main advice for others wanting to join the pageant world is to conduct thorough research and to be unapologetically bold.

“See if it’s really for you,” Zhao said. “Get rid of any misunderstandings that you might have. People have many misconceptions before they start and are either let down or surprised. Know what you’re going into and do what you love. Stop caring about what others think. You have to start living for yourself and for God if you’re religious. This applies for anything.”

Zhao’s passion and hard work paid off. On Saturday, March 13, Annie Zhao was crowned Miss Tennessee Teen at the Horseshoe Casino in Tunica Mississippi. 

“They called first runner up first, so when they called McKinley’s name, I was shocked,” Zhao said. “I knew I had won, and it was a paralyzing moment in my head. I was on the verge of tears, so grateful, so incredibly happy, and I couldn’t believe it.”

Zhao will compete in Miss Teen USA as the first Asian American to be crowned in the Tennessee System. 

“I am looking forward to sharing the beauty of new representation and the limitless opportunities the world has waiting for students through interviews with people of different professions,” Zhao said. “I want people to pursue their passion confidently, live for themselves and stay true to who they are.”