Ashley Love-Mills was a senior in high school when a letter arrived inviting her to compete in the Miss Teen North Carolina USA pageant. Love-Mills threw it away. “I’m not a pageant girl,” she said at the time.
But then she happened to see another pageant on television, and was impressed with how confident the contestants looked as they answered questions on stage. Love-Mills had been a dancer and had done some modeling and acting in commercials, so the idea of being on stage appealed to her.
“I’ve always been a girl who wanted to be on stage,” she says. “I loved being able to have that position in the spotlight, putting yourself in a vulnerable position.”
And so Love-Mills decided to give pageants a try. She finished in the top 10 in the Miss Teen North Carolina USA pageant in 2005. “The only thing that really surprised me was that I loved it as much as I did,” she says. “I didn’t realize how much that one weekend would change my life.”
But Love-Mills took a break from pageants while she studied communications and TV/film production at NC State. During her senior year at NC State, Love-Mills decided to enter the Miss North Carolina USA pageant, which is run by RPM Productions. Again, she finished in the top 10.
“It’s a great experience,” she says. “Pageants have challenged me in every way possible — learning how to be confident, being self-assured in who you are. That’s the only way any girl can do well in a pageant. You have to put yourself out there.”
Love-Mills continued to compete after she graduated from NC State in 2010. Earlier this month, Love-Mills won in her fourth try, being crowned as the new Miss North Carolina USA. She will compete next year for the Miss USA crown.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she says of her win. “I almost fell on the floor. I was just so overwhelmed with emotion. I’m not a very emotional person, but I cried and couldn’t believe it.”
It will be a busy year for Love-Mills, who makes her living as a model. She plans to make public appearances at schools and other locations throughout North Carolina, promoting an anti-bullying effort run by a group known as Peaceful Schools-NC. “That is something I am passionate about,” she says. “I was bullied in high school, and this will give me a voice.”
Love-Mills will also work with groups such as the USO and the Special Olympics that are partners with the Miss USA pageant.
Love-Mills plans to continue to work as a model, but would also like to do some acting. The winner of the Miss USA pageant receives a scholarship to the New York Film Academy to study acting.
Beyond that, Love-Mills is curious to see what happens over the next year. (You can follow her on Twitter at @realmissncusa) “I’m curious to see who I’ll be a year from now,” she says. “This year will challenge me, but I can only go up. I can’t wait to see what this year brings.”