Later this month at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, Miss Florida, Michaela McLean will join 49 women from around the country to vie for the 2020 Miss America 2.0 crown. McLean took some time to talk with us about her journey to Miss America, people who have inspired her along the way, and to share her message to young women.
Hailing from Clermont, Florida, 22-year-old Michaela McLean is an 8th generation Floridian, part of a family spanning 6 generations of organic citrus growers. She attended the University of Alabama where she graduated with a Double Major in Dance and Public Relations with a Specialization in Sport and Entertainment Communication Management.
McLean started competing in pageants at 16 years old through the Miss Florida’s Outstanding Teen program. “I saw that there was an incredible opportunity to further my education [...]” she said of the scholarships awarded to winners through the program. “I wanted to make it a priority to grow from Miss Florida so that I could graduate debt-free from college one day.”
Even at 16 years old, the pageant circuit and all the young women who participated had a profound impact on the future Miss Florida. “I saw that it challenged the young woman competing to sharpen her interview skills, sharpen her interpersonal skills, her communication skills,” she said. McLean knew if she wanted to go after her dreams in the public relations field, as a performer, or any other facet of her life, pageants were a way to prepare her and propel her forward.
McLean described her teenage foray into pageantry. “At first, it can be an uncomfortable experience because it is sharpening you and strengthening you in your weaknesses,” she said. “I knew that once I came out of it on the other side I would be more of a well-rounded individual and gain so many life experiences that I would take with me forever.”
Repping the Citrus Industry
McLean’s family has been growing organic citrus across Central Florida for generations. This made participating in and going on to win the Miss Florida Citrus pageant held in Winter Haven, that much more special. She put the spotlight on her grandfather, Benny McLean, and father, Ben McLean as two important influences who encouraged her to go after every one of her goals and dreams. Her Miss Florida Citrus title was a way to acknowledge them.
“I’m so thankful that I was able to represent such an important part of my history and my family heritage on the Miss Florida stage,” she said. “When I competed for Miss Florida Citrus, I wanted to acknowledge and recognize how special that part of my life was.”
Brave and Beautiful: Breaking free From Behind the Screen
McLean’s most memorable pageant memory thus far came the second after she won Miss Florida. She turned around to her local competitors and they all gave her a huge hug. “They were so encouraging, supporting, and so motivating,” she said. “To have other people excited for me was extremely encouraging.”
That encouragement is fueling McLean as she heads to the Miss America 2.0 stage later this month. The women competing in the pageant have undeniable outward beauty, but McLean explained that Miss America 2.0 goes beyond looks, delving into the core of each woman. She said, “Miss America is now called Miss America 2.0 which focuses on the intellect, the substance, the worth, and the ambition of each candidate.”
“I made it a priority and a goal to showcase who I am at my core in every phase of competition whether I’m speaking interpersonally to the judges or performing a lyrical contemporary dance on stage,” said McLean. She expressed that she wants to convey herself honestly to the judges and to the audience – “My dreams, my desires, my fears, my struggles,” she said.
“This organization has shown me there is so much power and so much influence in using your voice for the greater good,” said McLean, who is doing just that with her social impact initiative, Brave and Beautiful. “Brave and Beautiful empowers women to break free from behind the screen. The addictive misuse of social media by today’s young women is escalating a mental health crisis that breeds anxiety, depression, social isolation, and body dysphoria,” McLean said. “My hope is to come up with a female-centric curriculum that educates young women on how they can properly use social media, manage social media messages, and know that their worth and their identity is not found in their comments, likes, or followers on their social media profiles.”
To develop this female-centric curriculum by the Spring of 2020, McLean has partnered with advocacy groups such as Media Literacy Now as well as the University of Florida Department of Educational Technology. In addition to lobbying for social media education, McLean says, “My hope is as Miss America, I can speak to over a hundred thousand young women all across the nation, showing them that their worth and identity is found in who they are at their core.”
Brave and Beautiful was an issue close to McLean. With a pre-teen introduction to social media, and as the oldest of four sisters, a former sorority member, and friend to many women – Miss Florida has become all too acquainted with the pressures and struggles of social media. “We feel like we have to live up to these expectations and these standards that social media puts on our lives, whether it’s an area of beauty or success or accomplishments,” said McLean who admitted that she has personally struggled with these issues.
“This has become a mental health crisis among a lot of young women today, unfortunately. Two hundred and ten million people are expected to be suffering with a social media anxiety disorder,” she said. “This is something that I’ve taken up as my personal initiative as Miss Florida and I know that this is going to go beyond the crowd as well and be something that I’ll be passionate about for years to come.”
Preparing for the Job
McLean said she is working every day to be sure she is emotionally, mentally, and spiritually prepared for the job. One person who prepared her to step into her job as Miss Florida and potentially Miss America 2020, lives across the globe in Nairobi, Kenya. McLean met Pastor Dennis Tamba of Nairobi International Church while on a mission trip.
“He has taught me so much about what it means to be a servant leader and to serve others with every fiber of your being,” she said. He imparted on her the ideals of leading with humility and integrity and became a role model to McLean. “He showed me that a job or a moment in the spotlight is not about you – it’s about the people that you’re serving,” she said.
Miss Florida has a message for young women watching her on the Miss America stage. It is advice given to her by her grandma that has helped her through times of doubting her own abilities – a phrase she lives by – “Go for it.”
“That’s what I would tell those girls is, any dream whether you want to be a doctor or a lawyer or performer, just go for it,” she said.
On her way to the Miss America stage, the biggest lesson that McLean has learned is that “It takes a village.” Preparing for this massive moment in her life, McLean says many have come alongside her to support, encourage, and motivate.
She named her mom, Ann Marie McLean, along with Jennifer McKenna of the Miss Florida Organization, and Allison Krieger Walsh. “It’s those people who have made me the young woman I am today,” she said. She hopes to take every chance she gets in the future to come alongside others to support their dreams in the same way.
“Miss America has always been a dream and to know that it is just around the corner makes me feel so giddy and excited and anxious and nervous and so ecstatic all at the same time,” said McLean. “I am so incredibly grateful for the opportunity to be among 50 of America’s brightest, most intelligent, driven young women.”
Good luck, Michaela! We’ll be tuning in to cheer you on from the sunshine state.
Miss America 2.0
Airing live on NBC
Thursday, December 19, 2019, at 8 PM EST