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After family tragedy, Miss Maryland USA uses platform to break barriers and make her voice heard

She’s been preparing for this moment for nine years. She’s traveled the country, competing in different pageants. In the last week, she’s spent her days working out, practicing how to walk on the runway and rehearsing interview questions on current events. And this weekend, Taelyr Robinson, will be living her dream: competing in the Miss USA pageant.

The Annapolis woman, this year’s Miss Maryland USA, is now on location in Nashville, Tennessee, in the midst of a pandemic, at a time when the country is divided. She sees pageants as a chance for women like her to speak out.

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“I love the idea of pageants because it gives women a platform to tell their story,” said Robinson, 27.

She’s also one of 12 Black women running for Miss USA at a time when some of the big pageants have recently crowned more women of color. Last year, the winners of the three biggest pageants — Miss Universe, Miss America and Miss Teen USA — were all Black women.

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According to a study, 81% of all Miss USAs have been white, while 15% have been African American. The first Black Miss USA was Carole Gist, who was crowned as Miss Michigan in 1990. There has only been one Hispanic American and two Asian Americans who were crowned Miss USA.

Robinson has participated in six national pageants. Most recently, she competed in Miss New York in 2019 and Miss New Hampshire in 2018.

A full-time model appearing in advertisements for Target, Walmart, and Skechers, as well as in Teen Vogue and Cosmopolitan, Robinson first got interested in pageants when she met a former Miss California on a photo shoot. The competitions had never occurred to Robinson, but the pageant winner told her: “You’d make for the perfect pageant girl.”

Since she never got a chance to speak out in her modeling work, Robinson liked the idea. “No one knows the voice behind the picture,” she said. She also felt she had a story to tell.

Robinson is a native of Riverside, California, outside of Los Angeles. She was raised in a two-parent household and had two younger sisters. When she was 11 years old, her father died of a heart condition. Five months later, she lost her grandmother.

Robinson said in the aftermath, her mother struggled and couldn’t keep up with bills or take care of her children.

The family of four lost their home to foreclosure. They had to live in a motel.

“I was a child still, but I was the one who made sure that my younger sisters ate dinner and that their homework was completed before they went to bed,” Robinson said.

When she was crowned Miss Maryland a year ago, she said she wanted to be an example for children who deal with similar struggles of homelessness and poverty.

“I didn’t grow up in a household where I had anyone to look up to,” Robinson said. She said she found herself getting inspiration from books on personal development, and by using vision boards. “You don’t have to be defined by your struggles.”

“I want to show kids that they can achieve their goals no matter where they come from.”

In addition to her modeling, Robinson has been seen on the ABC reality show The Vineyard in 2013.

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She describes herself as a free spirit who loves to hop on a plane and see the world. In April 2018, Robinson went to Thailand and became a yoga teacher. Later that year, she helped create a pop-up modern art museum called Colorama in Barcelona. Inspired by the Museum of Ice Cream in New York City, the 7,000-square-foot outdoor venue was decorated with mystic pink clouds made of cotton candy, with a ball pit for adults.

In the last few years, Robinson spent her summers walking the beach in Ocean City and became a Ravens fan, enjoying games at M&T Bank Stadium with friends. In the early months of 2019, she decided to make Maryland her home.

Earlier this year, Robinson faced another loss: one of her younger sisters died after a struggle with alcoholism. She was 25 years old. And Robinson couldn’t get into the hospital to say goodbye, because of coronavirus restrictions.

“It was heartbreaking. Growing up, my sisters and I just had each other,” Robinson said. “But now I’m fueled to become an even better role model for children.”

This year the annual competition, which airs on Monday, will have a number of changes. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, all contestants must have a negative coronavirus test before arriving at Graceland and must self-quarantine for a majority of their stay. Robinson and others will only leave for the competition, and to visit the National Civil Rights Museum.

The audience will be limited to 300 people, mostly family and friends. East contestant will be given two tickets. Robinson’s mother and her surviving sister will be there, cheering her on.

Tatyana Turner is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers Black life and culture.

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