For the first time in 61 years, Meridian will be represented by one of its own as the state's top tourism spokeswoman.
Hailey Thomas, 20, was crowned Mississippi's Miss Hospitality in Hattiesburg on Saturday, following a four-day competition among 39 contestants.
The last time a Meridianite won the contest was in 1952 when Suzanne Paul was crowned Miss Hospitality.
A 2011 graduate of Clarkdale High School and a recent graduate of MCC, Thomas plans to attend the University of Mississippi this fall where she will major in pre-med. She plans to become a pediatrician. She is the daughter of Melissa and Roy Thomas.
Thomas won a full year of tuition to the University of Mississippi and a $3,000 cash scholarship. She also won Most Photogenic.
The Miss Hospitality pageant crowns a state representative each year to promote Mississippi. Thomas will travel 30,000 miles throughout the state during her reign and will serve as the state’s goodwill ambassador for one year.
"First I was shocked and then I started crying," Thomas said of the moment she learned she was the winner. "All these emotions were coming forth. After many many prayers and text messages to support me throughout the experience, it was all worth it and God had a plan for me that I was chosen to be Miss Hospitality for Mississippi."
Penny Randall, director of the Meridian and Lauderdale County Miss Hospitality pageants, said Thomas will represent her home town and her state well.
"I could not be more thrilled with her," Randall said. "She loves her state and she loves Meridian. She did an amazing job."
Contestants began the competition on the Wednesday prior to the Saturday evening finale. The first day included a five-minute interview with a panel of four judges. The next day they each had a one-on-one three minute-interview with each of the four judges. On Friday girls gave their Mississippi Speech, a 90-second speech about how they would promote Mississippi to an out-of-state visitor. Later Friday they presented their 20-second commercials promoting their hometowns and modeled their evening wear.
About 60 percent of the judging is done before Saturday night, the final phase of competition, Randall said.
On Saturday evening the top 10 were announced.
While appearance and poise are important, it is also essential that the young women be able to speak confidently about their home state, Randall said.
"Miss Hospitality has to be able to talk about her state," Randall said. "It is not just a beauty pageant. You have to be well-spoken and articulate your thoughts and your ideas."
Thomas will make appearances along side the governor and she will not be in a pageant dress, but a business suit, answering questions about promoting tourism and economic development in her home state.
As for promoting her home town, Thomas said she will focus on the arts.
"I know the Riley Center has been a major part of my growing experience. I've done a lot of show choirs and festivals that have been brought to the Riley Center," Thomas said. "I'll definitely continue to promote the arts in Meridian and also the great tourism. The Jimmie Rodgers Festival was something I was involved in as Miss Hospitality."
The local Miss Hospitality pageant helped her prepare for the state pageant, something not all state contestants have an opportunity to experience. Thomas recommends the local pageant to young women who want to feel more confident.
"It changes you and makes you a more well-rounded young woman for your future," Thomas said.
Her only similar competition experience was in the Junior Miss Scholarship Program where she won the Spirit of Junior Miss award.
During the competition, one of the questions she was called upon to answer was how to convince people from outside of the state to view it in a more positive manner.
Paraphrasing her answer on Monday, Thomas said while the state is known for its obesity epidemic and its poverty, she would tell others of its many opportunities, such as the abundance of natural resources.
"Forbes Magazine has ranked us fourth in the nation in biomass because 62 percent of our state is covered in forestry," Thomas said. "We also have a great business climate, which includes a low sales tax rate and a low cost of living. We also have a great infrastructure, including 15 water ports, 28 railways and 82 airports."
Among her many responsibilities as Miss Hospitality, Thomas will appear at Mississippi Day next summer at New York City's Central Park, and she will visit all 13 Mississippi Welcome centers across the state.