Emily Wakeman spent last week in southern California enjoying a family vacation she both needed and deserved.
The 19-year-old Cornelius native deserved it because on July 30 she capped months of preparation by finishing runner-up at the Miss Teen USA pageant in Las Vegas, beating out young women from 48 other states and one district (of Columbia).
She needed it, meanwhile, because a week of family fun and sun was a perfect way to stay out of the fray that erupted almost immediately following the crowning of the winner, Karlie Hay of Texas.
Within hours of her victory, social media was buzzing over the revelation that Hay, 18, had repeatedly used the N-word in casual Twitter posts when she was younger; she apologized early the next morning; and after deliberating, the Miss Universe Organization – which produces Miss Teen USA – decided not to strip Hay of her title.
Wakeman, back in North Carolina this week following her break, is now speaking out about the controversy that under slightly different circumstances could have ended with her as the replacement winner.
“I personally think that the use of that kind of language is unacceptable at any age, whether it’s on social media or in person,” said Wakeman, who begins her sophomore year at UNC-Chapel Hill this month. “It’s sad to see such hurtful things being put out there.”
“I really hope that it can be a teachable moment for other young people: that what you say can be hurtful to other people, and that what you do and say on social media can be hurtful. It can impact your life and other people’s lives. You always need to be aware of that when you are posting on social media.”
Wakeman said when she learned of the revelation about Hay, she was shocked. She trusts that pageant officials made the right decision by letting the Texas teen keep her crown, but:
“Obviously, it’s sad. It’s sad to see such hurtful things being put out there, and it’s sad to see, obviously, the effect it’s going to have on her and her reign – and the impact it’s going to have on the organization as a whole and everyone involved. I mean, it was such a positive experience for me and every single girl involved. There were so many great things, such as the (new) athletic wear (competition) and all these positive things for everyone involved. We were all so excited about it, and to see some of that clouded was sad, I think, for a lot of us.”
Wakeman also defended the pageant against criticism over the apparent lack of diversity among the five Miss Teen USA finalists; Hay, Wakeman, Miss South Carolina Marley Stokes, Miss Alabama Erin Snow and Miss Nevada Carissa Morrow all have fair skin and blue eyes.
“I got to know all of the girls’ stories who were in the Top 5,” Wakeman said, “and knowing them on a personal level and knowing how unique each of them are and how intelligent and ambitious and really kind all of them were ... it was hurtful ...
“We are all so different. Being clumped together, hearing over and over again that we were the same person – that was upsetting. But at the end of the day, I believe that all five of us were in the Top 5 based on merit.”
‘Immense gratitude and closure’
Wakeman, a 2015 graduate of SouthLake Christian Academy in Huntersville, went into the competition with a goal of making the Top 15. And it was a bit of a nailbiter: When pageant co-hosts Cody Johns and Olivia Jordan announced that group of semifinalists, Wakeman’s name was the last one called.
But when it came time for the Top 5 to field their finalist questions, she was passed the mic first.
The question came from her “favorite” judge – former Miss USA Lu Parker – and to Wakeman’s relief, the answer came easily.
Parker asked: “The average American teenager spends nine hours a day in front of a screen. Is the digital revolution a good or a bad thing for teenagers, and why?”
Wakeman’s answer: “I think there are definitely positive things about this influence. But overall, I think that it is so important that teenagers and kids are getting outside and exercising a lot. I know that for me that was a huge part of growing up.
“And that’s why, this year, I started a program called S.E.E. Fitness, where I’ve talked to hundreds of students now about the importance of going outside and living that balanced lifestyle, between going on social media some, but really hanging out with friends and being active. And if I can impact someone’s life and help them to live a healthy lifestyle, too, that’s what I’d like to do.”
Next thing she knew, she was standing face-to-face and hands-in-hands with Hay awaiting the final result – a result she is completely at peace with.
“It didn’t really sink in ... until afterwards, where I was like, ‘I was so close. Wow,’ ” Wakeman said. But a win would have involved getting swept up in a year’s worth of appearances and miscellaneous fanfare. “Being first runner-up,” on the other hand, “gave me immense gratitude and closure.”
“I learned so much from (the experience) and took so much away from it, and I know I’m better in the other areas of my life because of it. For me, wanting to major in journalism and be in broadcasting one day, it was great for me to practice being in front of a large audience and speaking in front of a large audience. ...
“But now I can look to the future and be excited for the other things in my life.”
Wakeman will wear the Miss North Carolina Teen USA crown until the end of September. (Her successor will be feted on Oct. 1 in High Point.) In the meantime, she’ll visit the Governor’s Mansion with Miss North Carolina Devin Gant; do a photo shoot in Houston with Gant; resume classes at Chapel Hill, where she will continue to write stories for the Daily Tar Heel student newspaper; and cut herself a few breaks.
“Oh, I’ve been eating so bad,” she said. “I’ve gotten some fruit in there, but there’ve been a lot of like ice cream and cookies and stuff.”
The full Miss Teen USA broadcast is archived here: