Ahwatukee teen vying for a state crown

Leilani “Lani” Nish, right, Ahwatukee’s entry in the Miss Arizona’s Outstanding Teen 2019 competition this week, and her sister Leila are best friends who bond over vegan dishes at the Pomegranate Cafe in Ahwatukee.

Leilani “Lani” Nish is crossing her fingers as she heads to this weekend’s Miss Arizona’s Outstanding Teen 2019 competition to vie for the crown in the crowded field of 29 young women from across the state.

The Ahwatukee teen also is asking for your vote in the People’s Choice award — which can be cast online now through 4 p.m. tomorrow, June 20, or through intermission at Thursday’s preliminary pageant at the Mesa Arts Center.

The same is requested by Briana Angel Delgado, a Maricopa resident who is Ahwatukee’s candidate in the Miss Arizona Scholarship Pageant, the official state preliminary to the 93rd Miss America 2020 competition. Contestants for the state do not have to live in the community they represent.

The Miss America pageant, normally broadcast the second Sunday in September, has not been scheduled yet.

But Lani has her calendar marked on July 27, when the 14th annual Miss America’s Outstanding Teen pageant will be held in Orlando, Florida.  

Mesa Arts Center is hosting the concurrent Miss Arizona and Miss Arizona’s Outstanding Teen competitions — a three-day event beginning with the Wednesday and Thursday preliminaries that concludes with finals on June 22, when the Top 11 initially compete.

 The Saturday event gradually winnows those 11 to the Top 5, and then to the announcement of runners-up followed by the crowning of Miss Arizona 2019 and Miss Arizona Outstanding Teen.

The People’s Choice award accounts for the additional 11th finalist. Votes are $1 for one vote, $5 for six votes, $20 for 25 votes and up to 125 votes for $100. Proceeds help fund to the Miss Arizona Scholarship Foundation.

Each of the Top 11 winners is given an additional scholarship, as is the People’s Choice winner. The scholarship amounts are listed on the Miss Arizona website.

This is the first pageant competition for Lani, the 17-year-old daughter of long-time Ahwatukee residents Cody Nish and Harrilyn Youvella.

As the pageant date grew closer, Lani found herself the recipient of a strong, extended-family support system.

An initial social media call-out asking for donations to help cover a $300 ad in the Official Pageant Magazine resulted in much more than expected.

“We have never fundraised and just paid for everything ourselves,” said her father. “We met our goal immediately within 23 minutes of posting it.”

Since then, additional donations have helped fund other pageant costs including her evening gowns, make-up even the hotel room required during her pageant stay.

All of it astounded Desert Vista High School senior.

“To see all of our friends and family helping me get to the Miss Arizona Outstanding Teen Competition is still unbelievable. None of this would’ve been possible for me without them,” said Lani.

She explained that eight dresses are needed for the competition. One dress was specially created for her talent competition.

“I will be performing a Fancy Shawl dance that ties into my culture background as Native American,” she said.

Lani is a descendant of six tribes: Paiute, Akimel O’odham, Tohono O’odham, Hopi, Tewa and Mohave.

“My outfit, referred to as a regalia, was made for me along with the hairpieces,” she said. “It’s definitely a beautiful work of art.”  

The Miss Ahwatukee Outstanding Teen is active in theater and dance.  

As a junior, she performed in various Desert Vista Arts Theatre productions, received the award for best performance in “Romeo and Juliet” and was inducted into the International Thespian Society.

A member of the Desert Vista High Dance Company, she said one of her favorite school clubs is Thunder Buddies, a sponsored program that, according to sponsor Karen Hinds, “promotes one-on-one friendships and group friendships with students in the regular education population with others in the special education life skills program,” and includes the annual Life Skills Prom.

She’s also in her school’s Link Crew that welcomes and mentors incoming freshmen.

In addition to her pageant commitments, Lani is working full-time this summer, hostessing at Kai, the Sheraton Grand Wild Horse Pass five-star restaurant.

Lani elected to go vegan a year ago, and said  her sister Leila, a Desert Vista sophomore, and her mother often enjoy her dietary lifestyle.

“Leila isn’t vegetarian or vegan but whenever we eat vegan meals at a restaurant, like Pomegranate Cafe, or at home, she eats with us and loves it,” laughed Lani. “My mom isn’t 100 percent vegan, but most of the time she is.”

Lani said selecting her pageant platform, “Healthy Me, Healthy We: Inspiring a Well-Balanced Lifestyle,” was an easy choice for her.

“I wanted to start something that would encourage people to be more physically active and to bring more awareness to their own mental health as well as others,” she explained, adding:

So, I started my own running/hiking group for all ages. When I bring a group out for an adventure in the mountains, I keep in mind the benefits for our bodies as well as our minds, and I share that with everyone in a small speech I give before we begin. It’s also a really fun way to meet new faces and catch up with old friends.”

Another project she is involved in “focuses on spreading my platform through different types of social media such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook,” she said.

“Every week I post on all these platforms facts and information about what it means to keep a balanced and healthy lifestyle, and how you can achieve one,” she said, adding that her choice of college will be one that offers the opportunity to help people in need, focuses on the environment and “anything helping animals.”

Her Miss Ahwatukee’s Outstanding Teen Facebook page showcases her various hikes and local appearances.

Entering the Miss Outstanding Teen contest was a leap of faith encouraged by her friend, Jiselle Diaz, Miss City of Maricopa Outstanding Teen.

“I thank her so much because I’ve learned a lot with this title,” Lani said. “And I wanted to join because of the community and volunteer service I’d be involved in. I really love to be in events that help me learn more about hospitality, social skills and the events that allow me to help those who are less fortunate.

“It will always be a chapter of my life that I cherish, and don’t regret.”

Lani’s involvement with charity events began before donning the crown and sash, said her father, who explained:

“Prior to this she did numerous charity events with her mother which came to light more as she began her title and wearing of the crown.”

Nia Franklin, Miss America 2019, is scheduled to host both Thursday and Friday night’s preliminary competitions.

Franklin was the first to win the crown after the pageant scrapped the swimsuit segment, and her response that young women considering entering the pageant felt “more empowered that they don’t have to do things such as walk in a swimsuit for a scholarship” drew raves.

Tickets for the 2019 Miss Arizona Scholarship Pageant and the Miss Arizona’s Outstanding Teen competition are available at Mesa Arts Center box office at One East Main Street or online.

Preliminary competitions Wednesday and Thursday begin at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday night’s finals and crowning begins at 6:30 p.m. The People’s Choice winner will be revealed Saturday night.

The Miss Arizona Scholarship Organization is a nonprofit foundation.

Its website explains “since its inception in 1921, the historical and social significance of Miss America has evolved from a boardwalk beauty pageant to the world’s largest provider of scholarship assistance for young women, awarding more than $45 million each year.”

For more information, to view candidates for the Miss Arizona Scholarship Pageant and Miss Arizona’s Outstanding Teen, or to cast an online People’s Choice vote see MissArizona.org

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