Ashburn teen finds self-esteem, confidence in the world of pageants

Beautiful Inside and Out 

By Jill Devine

Watching 17-year-old Amya Caldwell gracefully float across the stage in a beaded ball gown at this year’s Miss Teen USA pageant, it’s tough to believe she ever struggled with self-esteem or confidence.

“I used to be so shy that I could hardly talk to anyone, including family,” confessed Amya, who lives near One Loudoun and is a junior and honor roll student at Riverside High School.

Amya, who was crowned Miss Virginia Teen USA in January 2020, credits pageant life with helping her overcome extreme struggles with self-image.

“All of my confidence comes from lessons I learned through pageants,” said Amya, who has participated in 23 pageants, winning 11 titles, since entering her first pageant, National American Miss, at age 7.

Indeed, Amya’s mother, Brandis Caldwell, remembers childhood playdates where Amya refused to interact with other children.

“It was hard for both of us,” Caldwell said. “She would cling to my knees, never leaving my side.”

At one playdate, each child was asked to tell the group something that made them happy. Instead of sharing, Amya began to cry uncontrollably.

“I was worried and began looking for anything to help her overcome this shyness,” Caldwell said.

Not long after, Caldwell received a brochure in the mail about the National American Miss competition.

“The invitation said the pageant would help girls build self-esteem, so I thought we should give it a try,” she added. “Amya was always girly, loving dresses and sparkles … so I thought this might help her.”

Caldwell says she watched her daughter bloom through pageant competition, and there’s been no looking back.

“I have learned so many lessons through pageants,” Amya said, “the most valuable being how to hold a conversation with adults.”

One of those adults is Kim Nicewonder, a co-executive director for the Miss Virginia USA and Miss Virginia Teen USA programs.

“Amya is extremely confident for such a young woman,” Nicewonder said. “One of the advantages of being in my position is that you get to witness the contestants maturing over the years. I saw Amya gain so much from pageantry. She has become confident and bold — in the best way.”

This confidence and increased self-esteem didn’t come easy for Amya. She says learning to love herself was sometimes difficult.

“In high school I wanted to be with the popular crowd, but they weren’t accepting of me, and I felt very alone,” Amya said. “I was changing who I was in an effort to fit in. No one should ever feel that way, so I want to help kids understand that happiness has to come from within.”

Amya’s “platform” — an issue or cause she takes on — has recently been “Dare to Be You,” where she works with local schools to help younger students discover their self-worth, particularly when transitioning to middle school.

“There’s a misconception that pageants are about beauty,” Amya said, “but it’s really about growing through experiences and developing who you are on the inside.”

Amya being crowned at the Miss Virginia Teen pageant in 2020

Amya most recently was in the Miss Teen USA pageant in November, at historic Graceland in Memphis, where she represented Virginia. There was a live audience, although reduced numbers due to social distancing. Amya loved learning the opening dance number with the other young women and being involved in the choice of her dress design. She says just being there was a thrill.

“It was my first time being paired with a roommate and the first time I had to prepare and steam my own gown for the show,” she said. “And it was so much fun touring Memphis.”

Amya left Memphis without the crown, but no tears.

“It’s never about winning for me,” she said. “I always take so much home with me — all the experience, connections and memories.”

She admits that after spending so much time preparing, it is a bit strange when suddenly the event is over.

“My first thought going home was that I had to finish an essay for my psychology class — life goes on.”

Amya’s mother said it’s difficult knowing her daughter is being judged.  “But I’ve always reminded Amya that the judges see only a five-minute snapshot of who she is. They don’t get to see all the special things about her that I see 24-7.”

Amya with her siblings.

In most ways, Amya is like other high school students. She likes hanging out at One Loudoun with friends and enjoys an occasional greasy hamburger with bacon. She likes to do yoga, run and watch her sister play hockey, and she is a self-proclaimed “Netflix junkie.”

Amya dreams of majoring in psychology at the University of Alabama and wants to become a forensic psychologist, but she will keep participating in pageants.

“I will be in pageants for the rest of my life if I can,” she said. “With all the great experiences and opportunities pageants offer, why wouldn’t I?”

Jill Devine is a Loudoun-based freelance writer. When not busy typing away on her latest story, you may find her and her husband, Paul, exploring Virginia’s historic sites or pedaling on one of the area’s many bike trails.