This is the third in a Midlands Anchor series on Miss South Carolina contestants with local ties, focusing on the hard work, academic achievements, community contributions and passion for good causes which make the young women who compete in the pageant far more than just pretty faces. Click here for the first in the series and here for the second.
Sophie Keyes has always loved the spotlight. “I wanted to be a superstar,” she said with a smile when asked about what led her to become a broadcast journalism major at the University of South Carolina. Inspired by her childhood crush on singer Nick Jonas and on a more serious level by watching the news coverage of the Natalee Holloway case, Sophie knew early on that she wanted to tell stories and make an impact on the lives of those who watched them.
Sophie is now one semester away from a broadcast journalism degree at USC, and competing as Miss Greater Easley in the 2016 Miss South Carolina pageant. Being a contestant has given her opportunities to tell stories and promote causes that have stirred her passion, and a win would mean an even bigger platform. “If I had the crown, I would be able to get into more places,” she said. “When you have a crown on your head, things get done.”
As a Miss South Carolina contestant, Sophie has made it her mission to advocate for better access to public buildings for people with disabilities, working with Able SC and on her own. The cause became personal for Sophie after one of her closest friends was injured in their freshman year at USC. “I have a focus in spectator facilities, because entertainment is where people go to forget everything,” she said, sharing a story of going with her friend, who now uses a wheelchair to get around, to a concert and being told they would have to sit in different sections. “I saw this look on her face where it was like it’s not even worth it to go to a concert.”
Determination won out that night, and Sophie was able to sit with her friend, but she realized the problem is a common one. According to a 2015 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 53 million Americans have a disability. That’s 20 percent of the population. Still, Sophie has found many public buildings unwilling to take action. “I think it’s a hard platform because people don’t want to acknowledge that there are problems,” she said. “It takes someone like me to come in and say ‘Look, this is what’s happened here.'”
Her goals include bringing integrated seating to South Carolina facilities as well as raising awareness. “Handicapped should never be said about anyone,” she said. What I’m trying to do is educate people on the right vocabulary when talking about individuals with disabilities, and having them acknowledge that people with disabilities aren’t necessarily going to always hang out with people with disabilities.”
As a contestant, Sophie has also helped raise money for kids at Children’s Miracle Network hospitals, and visited young people at a Department of Juvenile Justice camp. Of the latter, she said “It was the best experience I think I’ve ever had. I saw exactly what the crown does.” She said she listened as the young people opened up to her and shared their stories, and she responded by telling them they could succeed in life, and could be anything they want to be. “They hadn’t had anyone to really do that for them.”
Sophie has split her time this past year between focus on school, Miss South Carolina, and taking steps to prepare for her future career in journalism. When MSNBC set up camp in Columbia for the South Carolina presidential primary in February, they hired a select few students to work alongside their staff, and Sophie was among those chosen. Getting the job was not easy, and once chosen, she had to shuffle the rest of her busy schedule to accept. She worked many days from 4 a.m. to 7 p.m., but said it was well worth the effort. “It completely changed my life in every single way,” she said. “We saw that we can tell stories.” She added “I wouldn’t have had that if I wasn’t persistent.”
Sophie has kept in touch with friends from MSNBC, and visited their New York headquarters on a recent trip. She is working locally as an intern for WACH Fox news this summer. “I feel like the crown adds to what you are doing,” she said. “You don’t have to make it your whole life.”
Asked about stereotypes of pageant contestants, Sophie pointed out some of the things achieved by contestants which have nothing to do with beauty. “Leslie [Knight, Miss Capital City] was executive director of Dance Marathon, a huge organization. Sydney [Ford, Miss Columbia]‘s going to Emory Law School,” she said. And then I worked for a national broadcasting company. We’re girls who are doing things.”
Preparing for the swimsuit competition is the toughest part of the pageant for Sophie. “I like macaroni and cheese too much, and ice cream,” she said. “You want an ambassador for your state, for your country, to be fit and healthy, but it is kind of embarrassing to do. You also have to be confident and just get over that.”
“I have to somewhat forget that I’m competing against other girls and I have to just think about myself and that I’m my biggest competition. I think once you get past that, it’s not as hard,” Sophie said. Win or lose, she said she will never regret competing. “It’s always going to add to your story.”