Business administration senior Heather Hays (second from right) is running for Miss California USA this winter.

When business administration senior Heather Hays told her kindergarten class she wanted to be a princess when she grew up, her teacher told her to pick something more realistic.

More than 16 years later, Hays is living proof that being a princess is completely realistic by competing for Miss California in this winter’s Miss USA pageant.

“Now, I feel like a princess,” Hays said with practiced poise and a smile as she showed off her baby blue gown for the pageant.

Hays will be one of an estimated 200 women ages 18 to 26 competing in three categories — swimsuit, formal and interview — for the crown.

Winning the crown and Miss California USA title does not only signify a certain level of beauty, grace and intelligence, but is “a platform for greatness,” 2012 Miss California USA Natalie Pack said.

Pack, a pre-med senior at UC Irvine, said the title of Miss California USA “is a platform for young women to show the world what young women of this world are capable of.”

To even be involved “is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Pack said, “that I can carry with me forever and tell my grandchildren about. It’s very special.”

Pack said the biggest advice she can give to the 2013 contestants is to be themselves.

“It’s human nature to compare yourself, but … look at your own strengths,” Pack said. “You can’t change yourself, so do the best that you can.”

That is exactly what Hays strives to do.

“There is only going to be one queen,” Hays said. “You just have to enjoy it.”

One of the aspects of pageant life Hays enjoys most is that it is “kind of like ‘Miss Congeniality,’” a film in which Sandra Bullock plays an undercover FBI agent in the Miss United States beauty pageant.

“When you’re participating in a pageant, the girls get this extra bond, this pageant family, supporting you,” Hays said. “Like, if you didn’t know how to do hair and makeup, they would sit down and do it for you.”

Not only does Hays watch “Miss Congeniality” before almost every pageant, but she was also voted Miss Congeniality by fellow contestants in one of her first pageants.

“I was really honored to win that,” Hays said.

Even though she wanted to be a princess at a young age, Hays was not always on the stage. Her first pageant was spent in the audience as the little sister. After seeing the competitors onstage, “I was like, ‘Take it and run with it,’” Hays said.

Hays said before she started pageants, she was a shy person, but joining the academic gender-neutral business fraternity Alpha Kappa Psi on campus helped her overcome her fear of speaking in front of people.

In fact, Hays attributes a lot of her involvement at Cal Poly to giving her the strength to speak confidently on stage.

Hays is also a member of the Alpha Omicron Pi sorority and president of the Cal Poly Panhellenic council. Hays said today she feels completely comfortable holding a microphone and representing close to 1,300 women at Cal Poly.

With all the support and practice, Hays said her favorite part of the pageant is now the interview portion, in which the judges ask contestants a variety of questions ranging from their daily life to modern world topics.

“It puts you outside your comfort zone but you have to put yourself in uncomfortable positions to grow,” Hays said. “Now, instead of shaking, I come out with a roller coaster-ride rush.”

To calm her nerves before going onstage in previous pageants, “the little things” are what remind Hays to enjoy the moment.

“When we were waiting to go up onstage, I would lift up my dress a little bit and take off down the hall in my heels,” Hays said. “And everyone would be so nervous but they would crack up because I did that.”

Hays said she tries to enjoy the process, and while “there’s only going to be one queen, it’s all the other things that you get out of it.”

One of those things is the ability to walk confidently in heels, Hays said.

While she called herself a natural klutz, because of pageants Hays can “climb a mountain … climb a tree in heels, but put me in flip-flops on flat ground and I’ll probably trip.”

It was not easy mastering heels, however, and Hays has had her fair share of onstage tripping.

“But it’s all about how you can recover from that situation,” Hays said. “They’re looking for a natural person, not a robot.”

Hays said it is because of her well-rounded, natural and caring personality that she feels she fits the Miss California persona.

“I feel like I’ve already been a good role model to a lot of people,” Hays said. “(I) feel like this can show a lot of people I’ve already inspired that if you put your mind to something and you want to work really hard, you can get there.”

Hays has already won first runner-up for Northern California, but said “even if you don’t achieve your dream goal, the process is sometimes the most important part.”

Allison Montroy contributed to this article.

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