Miss Delaware ready for Miss America stage

Miss Delaware Hillary May won her crown in June during a ceremony at Cape Henlopen High School. It was the first time the University of Delaware doctoral student and Indiana native had competed for the title. (Submitted photos)

Like so many who have come before her, Hillary May didn’t come up in the ranks of the beauty pageant world.

Her mom didn’t dress her in tassels and frills and hand her a baton when she was young. Growing up, she watched the Miss America Pageant, however she never imagined she would be in it.

But, at age 23, that’s exactly where life has found her, representing Delaware in Thursday night’s competition to be shown on NBC starting at 8 p.m.

She reached the stage, which this year will be at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Connecticut, through the urging of her roommate once she enrolled in the University of Delaware two years ago.

“She had done the Miss USA circuit and she knew I loved performing and said ‘You should do this. It’s really awesome,’” said Ms. May, whose talent is singing.

“We are the same size so she provided all of my dresses and I was excited about getting to perform again. It sounded great.”

Her very first competition was this January at the Miss Hockessin event, where she captured the title. She then competed for Miss Delaware in June in Lewes and took the crown there as well.

“I ended up as surprised as anyone. But I went on to have a lot of fun,” she said.

Originally from Mount Vernon, Indiana, she ironically became involved in community service because of a former Miss America winner.

“In 2008, Katie Stam became the first woman from Indiana to win the Miss America Competition. Her picture was all over the place. You’d see it when you were walking through the mall, everywhere. It was crazy,” Ms. May said.

“Her platform was getting youth to volunteer for community service. I thought it sounded like a good idea so I started volunteering at a soup kitchen. That started my long journey of community service.”

Ms. May holds a bachelor’s degree from Butler University in psychology and is currently a second-year Learning Sciences PhD student in the School of Education at the University of Delaware.

Mental health advocate

Ms. May’s platform is mental health. When she was in high school, her best friend lost his father to suicide.

Since then, she has worked with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, sitting on the board of directors for the Delaware chapter. She volunteers as a facilitator for the Healing Pathways group therapy series for grieving children (ages 5 to 16) through an organization called Supporting KIDDS in Hockessin.

Miss May leaves her Pike Creek home Wednesday, heading to the Miss America Pageant at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Connecticut.

Other partnerships she has made in the local mental health community include the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Delaware, the Mental Health Association-Delaware and the SL24 Foundation.

She also suffered from depression during a battle with chronic pain earlier in her life.

Over the past six months as Miss Delaware, she has been promoting her social impact initiative “Let’s Talk: Breaking the Stigma Around Mental Health” through appearances at schools and universities and has taken part in many other events.

Winning the title of Miss Delaware has opened the door for her to be able to spread her message.

“I can go out and tell this rags to riches story about being in a super terrible place and now I’m Miss Delaware and about to compete for the title of Miss America,” she said.

“One of my biggest things is talking to elementary and middle school students. I can call up a school and say ‘Hey, I’m Miss Delaware. Can I come talk to your kids about the stigma around mental health?’ A lot of them look at me like a princess but I can tell them that I’m just me and share my experiences. Having this crown can help me go out into the community and tell my story.”

Through her associations, she has met with dignitaries such as Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long and U.S. Sen. Chris Coons about the plight of those suffering with mental illness.

“It’s been super helpful to have this platform and definitely a lot easier to make these connections,” she said.

On top of her work with children and mental health, Ms. May has also written of series of kids’ books for which she is trying to find an illustrator. It covers various situations and experiences.

“One is on experiencing anxiety or dealing with their parents’ divorce. It’s talking to kids about things like that in an appropriate way,” she said.

Miss America 2.0

The national competition has now been dubbed Miss America 2.0. Last year, the event did away with the swimsuit competition and this year, gone will be the evening gowns.

Fifty percent of preliminary competition scoring will be dedicated to the talent competition, 20 percent will be based on a private interview with the judges, 15 percent will be allotted to on-stage interview and the remaining 15 percent will be used to score the contestants’ social impact pitch.

The final candidates will give a “Pitch for the Job” that will be used to determine their final placement.

Ms. May likes the direction the organization is going.

“It’s a total revamp that I love. It says that Miss America is not just a pageant girl or a beauty queen. She’s not taught exactly what to say and how to say it the right way,” Ms. May said.

“She is someone who is dedicated to her community and causes that she cares about and values their education. And for me that’s mental health and commitment to the field of education. It just seems like all of things that I have experienced in life has led up to this and it checks all of the boxes of what makes a strong, independent woman.”

Ms. May has worked with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, sitting on the board of directors for the Delaware chapter. She volunteers as a facilitator for the Healing Pathways group therapy series for grieving children (ages 5 to 16) through an organization called Supporting KIDDS in Hockessin.

Tonight starts two days of preliminary competitions where judges will determine the top 15 who will vie for the title of Miss America Thursday night.

“The song that I will be singing is very interactive so that should be fun. The interview portion is a huge key. I think my approach is a little bit different in that I don’t think about specific questions. I think about broad ideas. I am taking the time to figure out how I feel about certain things and then tying them back to my core beliefs,” she said.

“There isn’t anyone sitting here drilling me about the Ukraine and I hope that will pay off.”

Although she has only been in Delaware for two years, she has become well aware that the First State has never been first when it comes to the Miss America Competition.

Hillary May’s talent is singing.

“I have thought about that. Hopefully this will be the year,” Ms. May said.

“I’m thankful that I come from a state like Delaware that is so community based. In some of the bigger states like Oklahoma and Mississippi, there is an expectation that you’re going to win or at least place high and the girls can feel bad if they don’t do well.

“Mentally, I can go into this just having fun and whatever happens is gravy. But I’m still going to try my hardest.

Women helping women

Along with carrying out her message of removing the stigma around mental health, she has also tried to boost awareness of the Miss Delaware and Miss America organizations.

“It’s an amazing organization of women helping women,” she said.

“We are always looking to recruit new candidates. It teaches so many things, not the least of which is self confidence. Miss America is the number one organization for scholarships for women in the entire country. Even if I don’t get anything at all in the competition (this week,) I will still have won $15,000 in scholarships.

“Girls who continue to compete year after year, like Miss Arkansas, can rack up as much as $100,000 in scholarships. There is also a teen division. So those who go all the way until they are 25 can achieve an unimaginable amount of money for school.”

The future

Depending on how she does in Connecticut, Ms. May will still have six months to go in her reign as Miss Delaware. She plans to make the most of it.

“I want to do as much as possible, even after I give up my title. I have way too much planned not to do my best,” she said.

Ms. May looks to graduate from the University in Delaware in 2022 or 2023. After that, she hopes to work in the field of educational curriculum.

Along with her work with mental health organizations, Hillary May has written a series of children’s books.

“What we know from prior research is that, in underserved schools districts, children’s brains look different than the rest. I’d love to be able to develop different curriculum to fit their needs. Often you’ll hear ‘Hey we have this super new cool curriculum’ and then it doesn’t fit everyone’s needs,” she said.

“I’d also like to become a middle school teacher. It’s the whole thing about ‘How can I tell you how to do your job if I’ve never done your job.’”

Another thing she hopes to do is stay in her new home state.

“This area is a fantastic. I’ve already so many connections that if I moved away, I’d have to start all over again and I don’t have time to do that,” she said.

“When I moved here, things just fell into place. I got fixed up with such a great, supportive community at UD. I’m not looking to give that up anytime soon.”

She has to marvel when she thinks about her current place in life.

“It’s crazy because had I not moved here, this whole two years would have been completely different. I’m one of those people who believes that everything happens for a reason. It’s all been really amazing.”

Reach features editor Craig Horleman at chorl@newszap.com

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