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    Photos by Jessica Ebelhar.

    ​In January, Braea Tilford stood onstage in a glittering red dress that billowed to the floor. A white sash draped from her right shoulder to left hip. Her final competitor wore what looked like a wedding gown. “If Miss Kentucky cannot complete her duties,” a faraway voice said, “the runner-up will take her place.” Tilford fidgeted, stretched her neck as the announcer slowly eked out the name of the runner-up. Which was not Tilford’s name. Which meant Tilford had won Miss Kentucky. She held in tears as she accepted a bouquet of white flowers, a new sash and a studded crown. “It is a nerve-racking process because you’re being judged on who you are,” the 25-year-old says.

    Growing up in the Jeffersontown area, Tilford didn’t dream of crowns and sashes. She spent a lot of time on cheer and dance teams. After graduating from Central High School and U of L, she created Grow, Lead, Inspire, a weekend conference in the fall for girls ages 13 to 18. Eventually, she decided the pageant world could help her reach women and spread a message about leadership and self-love. Being Miss Kentucky also means speaking engagements with young women, charitable appearances and community-outreach events. And qualifying for Miss USA. (On Miss America ending its swimsuit competition, Tilford says, “I definitely think there are other ways a woman can display her confidence.”)

    Tilford didn’t place in the top 15 at Miss USA in May, but during the competition she did field a question about Mitch McConnell, the U.S. Senate majority leader from her home state. Question: If you had the opportunity to meet Mitch McConnell, what would you say? Answer: “I’d ask how he could assist me in amplifying my efforts to assist women in my community.”

    This originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine as The Portrait. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Jennifer Kiefer's picture

    About Jennifer Kiefer

    Germantown transplant. Louisville native.

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