Tennessee’s own struts down the stage at Miss Teen USA



Annie Zhao (12) shows off her fiddle while dressed in a sparking outfit. Zhao incorporated southern style as she walked down the stage playing the violin while representing Tennessee at the Miss Teen USA’s costume show.

The cameras zoom in, the light’s focus shifts and the crowd roars as Miss Teen Tennessee, Annie Zhao (12), struts down the stage in a breathtaking red gown to represent her state. From Nov. 23 to Nov. 27, Zhao competed against 50 other Miss Teens for the title of Miss Teen USA in Oklahoma.

“It’s like a blur, like I can’t believe that it happened and … that I walked across that stage as Miss Tennessee Teen USA,” Zhao said.

After watching Catriona Gray win the Miss Universe title in 2018, Zhao was deeply inspired to start participating in pageants. To her surprise, pageantry was not as easy as she imagined, and its purpose was a much greater one than she thought.

“I realized … pageantry is actually representation with a purpose,” Zhao said. “So, I was like that’s exactly what I want to do. I want to represent my community and become a spokesperson, role model and be there for my community.”

Not only did Zhao win the title of Miss Teen Tennessee this year, but she also became the first Asian-American titleholder for Tennessee..

“With the [COVID-19] cases and everything, there were a lot of anti-Asian attacks … and so, being that titleholder, I think it shows people that beauty is diverse,” Zhao said. “I feel very proud; I’m very happy that I’m here to experience [this].”

To participate in Miss Teen USA, an aspirant must first acquire the Miss Teen title for her state. Then, months of preparation are required before the final pageant.

“I worked with my sponsors over Zoom calls; I drove to … different parts of Tennessee … and also [went] to different appearances,” Zhao said. “It took a lot of work and a lot of prepping with my coaches, a lot of communication, a lot of designing.”

In addition to preparing for the Miss Teen USA pageant, Zhao also applied to colleges, handled schoolwork, managed clubs and maintained a social life. Balancing everything out proved to be difficult for Zhao in the beginning.

“Once I got the gist of it, like how unexpected my traveling could be, I … kind of just evolved or adapted to my schedule, which is good,” Zhao said.

Luckily, Zhao has a support system consisting of her family, best friends, the Greenwood Productions team, coaches, sponsors and fans.

“I actually got letters from people wishing me good luck at the pageant,” Zhao said. “They would mail it to the hotel, which was super sweet.”

During Miss Teen USA Week, Zhao competed against the other Miss Teens for three days. The first day consisted of interviews, the second of preliminary contests and the third of finals.

“[My favorite part was] really meeting everybody, all 50 girls, being there and eating dinner, lunch, just going through the tough times together and making it out in the end,” Zhao said. “We have a motto … ‘When you’re on the stage, that’s when you compete. When you’re off the stage, you’re sisters.’”

The first part of the preliminary competition is a private interview held with the judges to learn more about each contestant’s personality. Despite the intensity and high stakes, Zhao remained poised thanks to her thorough preparation.

“I had already briefed myself on the history of Oklahoma, any of the current events, all of the about me questions,” Zhao said. “Afterwards, I felt great. I felt that I had a great interview. I talked to the judges very professionally.”

Rather than feel nervous before the finals, Zhao demonstrated confidence in where she stood and how she underwent a unique experience to demonstrate her pride in her home state.

“I was very excited, and I was very proud to represent Tennessee and walk across that stage, because I guess it’s been like a dream,” Zhao said.

Even though Zhao did not win the title of Miss Teen USA, she does not focus on that but instead savors the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity she participated in. .

“I didn’t win the pageant, and that’s totally okay,” Zhao said. “I think everything’s meant to happen for a reason, and the experiences, the life-lessons and the friendships that I’ve made from there … means so much to me … I don’t feel any regrets at all.”

Through the ups and downs of her reign, Zhao’s fans have constantly reached out to her and sent her words of encouragement. For this, she greatly appreciates them.

“Having people reach out to me from different parts of the country or different parts of the world, like one person literally will melt my heart,” Zhao said.

Although Zhao is currently undecided on if she will participate in the Miss division of USA, she will still continue the pageant journey. She also dreams of becoming an obstetrician gynecologist (OB-GYN).

“I want to observe [the Miss USA pageants] for a few years, and then go back to the USA system if I want,” Zhao said.

Zhao encourages other teenage girls to become involved in pageants, not only for their glamor and honor but also for the life skills they will obtain from participating in them.

“Just do it and don’t look back,” Zhao said. “Don’t doubt yourself because on the pageant road and even in school and … along [life’s] path, there is going to be competition everywhere. And one of the biggest things is not comparing yourself to others.”