So what exactly does a 17-year-old do to celebrate in the immediate hours after winning the biggest teen beauty pageant on the planet?
“Room service,” says Sophia Dominguez-Heithoff of Parkville with a laugh.
“I ordered mac and cheese, the good kind with the breadcrumbs. And french fries.”
A reward, Sophia says, after months of clean eating and preparation for the pageant July 29 in Phoenix. Preparation that paid off just hours prior to that first cheesy bite when, competing as Miss Missouri, she became the 35th young woman crowned Miss Teen USA.
“I hadn’t eaten anything that had tasted good in so long,” Sophia says by phone from New York, where she was whisked after the competition. “I had been eating healthy trying to prepare myself. I really wanted to eat ice cream when I finished, and I haven’t done that yet, so I need to do that while I’m here. I bet there’s some really great ice cream shops in New York.”
The morning after the competition, Sophia hopped on a cross-country flight and checked into the Midtown New York apartment allocated by the Miss Universe Organization for Miss Universe, Miss USA and Miss Teen USA. That day she underwent media training and met her Miss Teen USA manager. Then came the press gauntlet: interviews with “Good Morning America” (alongside Idris Elba and one of her childhood idols, Raven-Symone), USA Today, “Fox & Friends” and a host of others.
“It’s barely been 48 hours,” she says. “Things moved very quickly.”
For most teens, this sudden catapult into prestige and responsibility might prove daunting. But for Sophia, a young woman who this time last year had never even participated in a beauty pageant, accomplishing extraordinary feats with poise seems second nature.
She was introduced to pageantry by her friend, Miss Missouri Bayleigh Dayton, a little over a year ago, while preparing to graduate a year early from Park Hill South High School. Her first pageant ever was the Miss Missouri Teen USA competition in September (she won): “I honestly just wanted to have that experience with Bayleigh,” Sophia says. “Little did I know we’d both win.”
Sophia soon became acquainted with Miss Teen USA and enamored with the pageant’s motto, “confidently beautiful.”
“I love the fact that ‘confidently beautiful’ and being beautifully confident is different for each and every one, especially every young woman,” she says. “Everyone’s idea of being beautiful is different, and I think that’s what makes it incredible.”
This kind of approach to inclusion and diversity has informed many of the principles and actions that helped Sophia win the crown. Many have pointed to her question-and-answer round as the moment when she separated herself from the pack.
“It’s important to remember that as Miss Teen USA, you are a role model,” Sophia said in her title-winning answer. “I would love to be the Miss Teen USA that could accept everyone, especially for their differences.”
Sophia earned her Girl Scout Gold Award (the Girls Scouts’ highest honor, achieved by less than 6 percent of its members) by dedicating more than a year to researching the care available to developmentally disabled adults in Missouri.
“My Aunt JoAnne is the reason I’m so passionate about this cause,” Sophia says, referring to her relative with Down syndrome. “She has 24-hour staffing. And what I found was that the turnover rate within this community was extremely high. These are people who need stability in their lives. The research I conducted were the effects of a high turnover rate and how it affects them emotionally and physically.”
She took her findings to the state legislature to inspire change.
“I went to the Missouri General Assembly,” she says with a shy laugh. “I’m so glad they took me seriously, even though I was just 16. I was literally just running around the Capitol building speaking with anyone who would listen to me.”
She’ll be doing a lot of running around this next year: for speaking engagements, red carpets and, in September, New York Fashion Week. But first, Sophia will begin her studies this month at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, a decision that has already brought about Border War jabs:
“I’ve seen a couple of tweets that had been sent to me by Mizzou fans saying I’m not their true Miss Missouri,” she says with a laugh.
Sophia says she chose KU because its Midwest Exchange Program allows for cheaper tuition, and it’s a closer drive to her home, her family and KCI. “It’s only 40 minutes from the airport, so I’ll be able to travel really easily now that I’m Miss Teen USA,” she says.
Sophia will study political science and ethics. She’s considering a minor in Spanish. She hopes to become a social justice attorney, like her role model, human rights attorney Amal Clooney. “She’s an all-around great person who shows you can be beautiful and smart and use your name for good.”
That’s what Sophia hopes to accomplish during her yearlong tenure as Miss Teen USA.
“I’m going to continue my advocacy work for adults with disabilities,” she says. “I know that a lot of people my age are feeling powerless and like they don’t have a say, but I feel like I really am living proof that, yes, you can make a difference, you can do so much. I want to empower young people, especially young women, to become civically engaged.”