It's hard to imagine Christine Williamson being bullied.
Poised and smart, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga graduate student — and current Miss Tennessee — says her life wasn't always so neatly arrayed. In fact, her middle school years were pretty miserable, she remembers.
"I was not popular," says the 23-year-old Memphis native. "I remember in ninth grade I had short hair, and I dyed it pink. I had braces. I was uncomfortable."
A former home-schooler, Williamson says she enrolled in a rigorous Memphis private school in eighth grade and immediately felt like a fish out of water. Friendless for a time, she would lunch with an adult English teacher to avoid eating by herself.
"Nobody would sit with me," she recalls. "It was a sad situation."
Did she feel bullied?
"Absolutely," she said.
Meanwhile, Christine grew up hanging out around her family's business, a Memphis demolition company and scrap yard. She would tie her hair in a bun, put on a hard hat and tag along with her father to tear-down sites. She did office work, too, writing receipts for customers buying salvaged bricks and other recycled goods.
When she was 17 and a senior in high school, Christine's dad convinced her to channel her competitiveness by trying a couple of scholarship pageants in the Memphis area. He loved the evening dresses most of all, she said. Once after seeing her in a dress dripping with rhinestones, he got so jazzed up that he wanted to weigh it, she recalls.
"You mean [weigh it] like a fish?" she remembers responding incredulously.
Her first pageant was the beginning of a five-year journey that culminated in her being crowned at Miss Tennessee in June in Jackson, Tennessee.
Then, last month, she represented the Volunteer State in the Miss America contest in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and became the only 2018 contestant to be named a finalist in two scholarship award categories. To date, she has won almost $50,000 in college money from pageants, and she is now studying for a master's of business administration degree at UTC.
Christine also has raised more than $30,000 to benefit the Alzheimer's Association. One of her grandfathers died of Alzheimer's disease when she was 19, and it has become her Miss Tennessee policy platform.
At the beginning of her pageant career, Christine was a wobbly-in-heels 17-year-old competing in the Miss Tennessee event against seasoned contestants who had grown up in the pageant culture, she recalls. Her trump card, though, was a knack for conversation and a polished vocal performance. A rhetoric class in high school and years of voice lessons boosted her confidence and stage presence.
Soon, she was competing regularly in the Miss Tennessee pageant, finishing in the top five three times before winning this year under the banner of Miss Chattanooga, the city that has become her second home.
The irony of a Memphian winning the state contest as Miss Chattanooga was not lost on her. She remembers going through a box of pageant mementos once and lingering over the ticket to a former Miss Tennessee contest that featured former UTC student Chandler Lawson, who went on to finish in the Top 10 in the Miss America pageant.
After finishing first runner-up in Miss Tennessee in 2017, Christine turned to former Miss Hamilton County Stefanie Wittler (a former Miss America second runner-up) for advice about how to approach this year's state pageant. She said Wittler told her to just be present in the moment and "take it all in."
When her crowning moment arrived, Christine said she tried to take Wittler's advice, but mostly she just concentrated on not tripping on her dress or breaking into tears — or "ugly crying," as it's called in the pageant world.
"It's surreal how it came together," she says. "It was five years of hard work."
Since becoming Miss Tennessee she has visited the four corners of the Volunteer State. She knows, for example, that just driving across the state can take up to nine hours. She frequently meets with state and federal lawmakers to advocate for more money for Alzheimer's research, and she wants to eventually become a lobbyist.
In the meantime, she is enjoying her duties as Miss Tennessee so much she doesn't want to think about giving up her crown next summer. Since it took her years to win, she figures she deserves a little extension.
"How about five years of preparation, five years of crown?" she jokes.
Ten years ago, she was a sad little middle-school girl. Today, she is Christine Williamson, smart and shiny Miss Tennessee.
And that's a story worth sharing from Memphis to Johnson City.
Contact Mark Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6645.