France Beard, 17, was momentarily perplexed when she heard her name called at the Miss Mississippi Outstanding Teen competition Saturday night. She had been trying to fix a younger girl's dress on stage and didn't know why she was announced after the alternates had been named.
"Then I looked around and realized it was me and just covered my mouth," Beard says of the moment she realized she had won. "I was so surprised and thrilled to have that honor.
It's been a long road to the crown for France, who was a dancer in the pageant last summer. She was one of four girls selected to help the contestants learn the choreography and practice the dances. Her mother, Ann Beard, said it was then her daughter decided she'd like to be more than an assistant in the competition.
Beard won the Miss Madison County competition in October and began preparing for the Miss Mississippi Pageant.
When she was crowned Saturday night, it was on the same stage that her mother and her grandmother had walked in their own pageants. Ann Beard competed in Miss Mississippi three times and France Beard's grandmother had been named Miss Vicksburg in 1959. Seeing her daughter compete was a special night for Ann Beard, and though her grandmother passed away before France Beard was born, her grandfather was there to cheer her on.
The generations of contestants share a common trait: gratitude to God for their successes.
"After she won the talent competition Friday night, we were walking to the car and she said, 'OK, Mama. After rehearsal you're picking me up, and we're going to the church to pray and ask God to help me do my very best,'" Ann Beard says.
Remembering the moment her daughter was crowned, Ann Beard says, "She walked out there shaking and crying. I think she was shocked."
Throughout the competition, France Beard advocated Promoting Animals Worth Saving, or PAWS, as her platform issue. Beard founded PAWS, through which she promotes pet adoptions and the Madison Ark animal shelter. She performed service hours with Madison Ark through high school, and grew up saving stray animals that wandered near her family's home. In her profile on the Miss Mississippi Outstanding Teen website, Beard wrote about how she fell in love with the cause.
"I am so passionate about my platform because animals are extremely close to my heart," she said. "I strongly believe it is my duty to protect these animals because they cannot protect themselves."
During her term as Miss Mississippi Outstanding Teen, Beard hopes to promote awareness about the competition itself, having gained a great appreciation for it throughout her journey.
"It's so much more than the glitz and the makeup," she says. "There really are truly talented and dedicated people that put on that show, and any girl on that stage deserved the crown."
"I'm so blessed to have shared the stage with such talented girls."