Miss America’s Outstanding Teen competition strategy: Let Payton be Payton

Vancouver’s own Payton May proved being her ‘authentic self’ was enough to win national competition

VANCOUVER — Vancouver’s Payton May headed to the Miss America’s Outstanding Teen competition this summer with a legion of supporters. Thankfully for May, those closest to her offered sound advice that led to the Skyview High School senior’s ability to be the first contestant west of Texas to be named Miss America’s Outstanding Teen.

Vancouver’s Payton May, a senior at Skyview High School, was named Miss America’s Outstanding Teen this summer. Photo courtesy of Deb Knoske Photography
Vancouver’s Payton May, a senior at Skyview High School, was named Miss America’s Outstanding Teen this summer. Photo courtesy of Jenn Cady Photography

“So many people helped me on my journey to Miss America’s Outstanding Teen, but my first local Director Sheri Backous and my state Director Lona Graves played an integral part,’’ May told ClarkCountyToday.com. “Both of these women were so incredibly supportive of me, and assured me that being my authentic self was enough to win the crown. Of course, my parents (Tom and Debra May) also played a huge part in my success. They’ve never coached me on how to answer questions or tell me what dress to wear, but simply loved me and let me know that they were proud of me no matter what.’’

Backous, executive director of the Miss Clark County Scholarship Organization, said it was easy for her to encourage May to just be herself at the national competition, which included contestants from all 50 states.

Vancouver’s Payton May is shown here shortly after being crowned Miss America’s Outstanding Teen at a competition held in Orlando, Florida in July. Photo provided to ClarkCountyToday.com through social media
Vancouver’s Payton May is shown here shortly after being crowned Miss America’s Outstanding Teen at a competition held in Orlando, Florida in July. Photo provided to ClarkCountyToday.com through social media

“Payton is not a ‘Pageant Patty’ who has been trained to ‘do pageants’ since birth,’’ Backous said. “Payton came to the Miss Clark County Scholarship Organization to compete in 2018 without any previous experience at all.  A friend had encouraged her to give it a try. She is a quick learner and caught on to the expectations of the interview, on-stage presence/elegance, and fitness.

“Payton is the perfect representation for the Miss America’s Outstanding Teen program as she is a genuine person,’’ Backous added. “She is genuinely kind and well-liked by others.  This is proven by her success at school and how she interacts with others. Having been at Skyview High School for two years, she was elected the ASB President and a varsity cheerleader.  Her kindness spreads to those around her.’’

Skyview High School senior Payton May is shown here being swarmed by her fellow contestants at the Miss America’s Outstanding Teen competition. Photo provided to ClarkCountyToday.com through social media
Skyview High School senior Payton May is shown here being swarmed by her fellow contestants at the Miss America’s Outstanding Teen competition. Photo provided to ClarkCountyToday.com through social media

May was selected as Clark County’s Miss Outstanding Teen in 2018. She competed in the state competition last year (when she finished in the Top 10) and again this spring. There, she immediately caught the eye of Lona Graves, the executive director of the Miss Washington’s Outstanding Teen Program.

“You hear the term the ‘It Factor’ a lot in pageants and you try and look at what that means, but I think what I have learned is that having the ‘It Factor’ is a feeling deep inside where you can’t really explain it (it’s invisible) other than to say that the girl is ‘real,’ she is ‘herself,’” Graves said of May. “She is not pretending to be anyone else or be who she thinks someone wants her to be.  Her inner light shines simply by being her ‘true’ self.’’

Let Payton be Payton

So, from the time Graves began working with May, her primary focus was to let Payton be Payton.

Skyview High School senior Payton May (left) poses with a young admirer at the season finale of the Ridgefield Raptors earlier this month. Photo by Mike Schultz
Skyview High School senior Payton May (left) poses with her 5-year-old niece Garrity Mattocks at the season finale of the Ridgefield Raptors earlier this month. Photo by Mike Schultz

“A lot of people tried to give me (as her state director) advice on what I should suggest Payton does with her hair, her make-up, her clothes etc. and I actually found that quite frustrating for me,’’ Graves said. “The minute I saw her on the state stage in May, I knew she was a teen that you noticed. It was a feeling. I could not keep my eyes off her, she stood out in every aspect — in production, in her talent, in her interview, when people were not watching her, when they were watching her — Payton was always just being herself. 

“I thought she was great just the way she was,’’ Graves said. “I know everyone just wanted her to be the best she could be. We are so used to changing girls in this industry, but sometimes you think to yourself, she is enough. She is perfect the way she is so once she won (at state), I felt pretty confident that she would do well at nationals.’’

Vancouver’s Payton May (left), the 2019 Miss America’s Outstanding Teen, is shown here with Rally the Raptor at the season finale of the Ridgefield Raptors at the Ridgefield Outdoor Recreation Complex. Photo by Mike Schultz
Vancouver’s Payton May (left), the 2019 Miss America’s Outstanding Teen, is shown here with Rally the Raptor at the season finale of the Ridgefield Raptors at the Ridgefield Outdoor Recreation Complex. Photo by Mike Schultz

Graves took the responsibility at the 2019 Miss America’s Outstanding Teen competition — held in Orlando, Florida in June — of not letting the many offers of advice distract May from following her own instincts.

“Once the preparations began, Payton was getting all kinds of advice thrown at her,’’ Graves said. “I know that was frustrating to her. Here was a girl I barely knew, she was my new teen and everyone and their sister felt the need to help prepare her for nationals when, in reality, it was my job. The one thing I did was to try and listen to Payton, to listen to what she wanted to do and how she wanted to represent herself at nationals.

“I watched this amazing girl prepare, and quite honestly, do what she felt was best for her and that is what brings it back to someone who has that ‘It Factor,’” Graves said. “It’s a girl who is not trying to impress anyone. She is who she is and she has a voice, an opinion of her own and if you like her great and if you don’t, well that’s great too.’’

From the time May and her contingent arrived in Florida for the national competition, Graves was telling everyone the Vancouver teen could win.

Vancouver resident Payton May is shown here during the evening gown portion of the Miss America’s Outstanding Teen competition held in July in Orlando, Florida. Photo courtesy of Miss America’s Outstanding Teen
Vancouver resident Payton May is shown here during the evening gown portion of the Miss America’s Outstanding Teen competition held in July in Orlando, Florida. Photo courtesy of Miss America’s Outstanding Teen

“Once we got to nationals and I had the job of checking her in to to the national team, I was able to observe her and watch all eyes on Payton,’’ Graves said. “I felt in my gut, wow, they must be seeing what I am. This girl gives you a feeling that she’s the one. I can safely say I had not had this feeling before, I was always so proud of the teens I took to nationals but I had not had this gut feeling before where in my heart. I knew this girl was going to win, I just felt it.  It started at day one and I continued to have the feeling all week and all through the preliminary competition.’’

Backous was among those in the audience the night May was crowned Miss America’s Outstanding Teen.

“I had the privilege of attending Miss America’s Outstanding Teen [competition] and watch Payton shine,’’ Backous said. “There were 50 other very talented and graceful young ladies, and we just didn’t know what might happen. On the final night, our excitement grew as each step toward the crown got closer.  The Top 15 was announced and Payton was in. Then, those 15 performed their talent. The Top 10 were named and Payton was in. Those 10 did fitness. Now, it was time for Top 5. They named the first four, and Payton wasn’t named yet. We sat anxiously waiting for her to be the last one called up, and yes, she made the top 5.

Payton May (center) is shown here with the final five contestants at the Miss America’s Outstanding Teen competition held in Orlando, Florida in July. Photo courtesy of Miss America’s Outstanding Teen
Payton May (center) is shown here with the final five contestants at the Miss America’s Outstanding Teen competition held in Orlando, Florida in July. Photo courtesy of Miss America’s Outstanding Teen

“Those Top 5 did evening gown and on-stage questions before the final ballots were complete,’’ Backous added. “Anticipation grew as they named off the 4th runner-up, 3rd runner-up, 2nd runner-up, leaving Payton and Miss Arizona standing there waiting for the big announcement.  I think we quit breathing as we sat on the edge of our seats. Sure enough, Miss Arizona was named 1st runner up and Payton as Miss America’s Outstanding Teen. We were in shock.  We knew she has what it takes to win, but just didn’t know if the judges felt the same as us. #whynotpayton was our motto for the pageant week, and it worked!’’

Payton’s thoughts on competitions

May wanted to clear up what she describes as “misconceptions’’ about teen competitions.

“So many people have misconceptions about competitions and the girls that compete in them, but I can’t emphasize enough how phenomenal the young women I competed with are,’’ May said. “These are girls that are trailblazing the future they want for themselves; training 30 hours in the studio a week to become professional dancers, raising thousands of dollars towards pediatric cancer research so that no child has to go through what they went through, and being a role model to so many children across this country. I truly believe that all 50 girls I had the honor of competing with are going to change the world, and I want to share that message and this program to as many people as possible.’’

During the next year, May’s schedule will include many trips around the U.S.  She looks forward to using those opportunities to grow as a person and to spread her platform.

“This is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I know that the Payton two years ago would have no idea that she would be here now,’’ May said. “There’s so many amazing appearances I’m hoping to do this year, but one in particular is visiting Washington D.C and lobbying in Congress for the passing of legislation that would decrease voter suppression. I have the opportunity to promote my platform of civic participation and voter registration this year, so lobbying at Congress and meeting my representatives would be such an honor.

“Winning this title truly opens up so many doors for me and my future,’’ May added. “Not only do I get to represent this organization on a national level, but I’m given such a large platform to speak my voice and advocate for things I’m passionate about. It’s honestly hard to fathom what this means for my future, but I know that I’m so incredibly grateful and ready to take on whatever this year brings.’’

To say May has a busy year ahead of her is a tremendous understatement. As a result of what lies ahead, May felt the need to give up her role as Skyview High School’s ASB President. She will continue to serve in student government, participate in choir and drama and be a cheerleader as well. Oh, and she plans to take some time, deservedly so, to enjoy her final year of high school.

“I take everything I do very seriously, and try to dedicate the required time and effort in all my activities,’’ May said. “With me being Miss America’s Outstanding Teen, I didn’t feel that I could give my 100 percent effort into being the president of my school, and felt that it would be better suited for someone who could. I take great pride in my school, and wanted to make sure that whoever was the president gave it the kind of time and dedication it deserves.

“I’ll definitely have to be more flexible with my school schedule and the activities I’m involved in, but I still plan on being in everything I was last year,’’ she said. “That might mean doing homework on planes, pulling a few all nighters, or turning down an appearance because I have a football game, but life is all about balance and I want to ensure I have a great year as Miss America’s Outstanding Teen, as well as enjoying my senior year of high school.’’

There’s little doubt, according to Backous and Graves, that the upcoming year will not keep Payton from being Payton. And, she is very thankful that those closest to her have allowed her to do just that.

“Payton is the perfect representation for the Miss America’s Outstanding Teen program as she is a genuine person,’’ Backous said. “She is genuinely kind and well-liked by others.  This is proven by her success at school and how she interacts with others. Having been at Skyview High School for two years, she was elected the ASB President and a varsity cheerleader.  Her kindness spreads to those around her. Besides her beautiful vocal talent, her elegance in public speaking and interviews are truly her strengths. She gained this title with her beautiful personality, and didn’t need personal interview, fitness or walking coaches.  I have to say, her parents raised her well.’’

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About The Author

Ken Vance got his start in the newspaper industry in 1987 as a reporter at The Columbian Newspaper in Vancouver. Vance graduated from Stevenson High School in Stevenson, WA, and attended Clark College in Vancouver. He worked for The Columbian from 1987-2001. He was most recently a staff member of The Reflector Newspaper in Battle Ground, where he served as editor since 2010 and reporter since 2007. Vance’s work in the newspaper industry has won him multiple awards, including a first place award from the Society of Professional Journalists for in-depth reporting.

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