VICKSBURG -- 44 young women from across the state are making their way to Vicksburg this weekend to begin the race for the crown and title of Miss Mississippi, as well as a chance to represent their home in the Miss America pageant.
Five South Mississippi contestants have spent months preparing for the competition, where they will be judged in private interview, talent, swimwear, evening wear and onstage question.
Miss Riverland Michaela Moore of Biloxi is returning to compete for a fourth time after being a preliminary talent winner and grabbing a spot in the Top 10 last year.
"This year, I can really say I've given it my all and am prepared for the crown, God willing," Moore said. "I have friends across the state who are going to last me for life through this," she added. "Not many girls from the Coast compete, but when we do, we definitely help each other out."
Three-year pageant veteran Miss Tri County Bethany Cuevas of Long Beach said the chance of winning scholarships brings her back but agreed that friendships are an important part of the pageant.
"The Miss America Organization is a sisterhood. It's a family," she said. "Every year, I learn something new about myself; each year is a new milestone," Cuevas said. "It has taught me more life lessons than I ever could have imagined."
First time competitor Miss Hattiesburg Charli Cubbage is from Lucedale and has craved a shot at the crown since she saw her older sister compete years ago.
"Ever since then, I've yearned to be on the Miss Mississippi stage, so when I got to college, there was nothing holding me back," she said. "I'm super excited because it's my first time and I'm not really sure what to expect, but that same thing makes me nervous."
For Miss Jones County Allison Judge, who grew up in Ocean Springs and also competed last year, preparations don't stop even when the pageant begins.
"The contestants would always find time and space to work out in the dressing room in between rehearsals," Judge said. "It's truly a busy week, but we're always preparing."
But getting ready to compete isn't just about calorie counting and shoe shopping, as Lucedale's Miss Delta Blues Callie Brown has learned. Since winning her local title six months ago, she's been in schools across the state promoting America's ToothFairy, her platform to educate children about oral hygiene.
"It's always so much fun visiting schools and seeing how excited the students are about taking care of their teeth, but to be invited by my first-grade teacher to speak at L.C. Hatcher Elementary was so neat," she said.
Moore has also spent time in schools around Mississippi speaking about suicide prevention and awareness, and she met a young girl who once considered ending her life but decided against it.
"She inspired me and gave me hope that one person can make a difference in the lives of others," Moore said.
Preliminary competition begins at 8 p.m. Wednesday and continues through Friday. The Top 10 will be announced and compete in a live broadcast at 8 p.m. Saturday.