Courtrooms and Crowns
After being crowned Miss Hawai‘i and graduating law school in the same weekend, Miss America-hopeful Courtney Choy is determined to make this year one for the books.
When Courtney Choy was crowned Miss Hawai‘i back in May, all she remembers is scanning the audience for her parents and the fact that she was crying uncontrollably (“They tell you not to cry your ugly cry, but I couldn’t help it!”). With remnants of hairspray and mascara from the night before, Choy graduated cum laude from University of Hawai‘i William S. Richardson School of Law the very next morning.
Two monumental milestones jam-packed into one weekend can only prepare the 25-year-old for what’s to come: The opportunity to be named the 100th Miss America. At the Dec. 16 competition, which takes place in Uncasville, Connecticut, Choy will compete against 50 like-minded and accomplished young women in an array of categories — but that’s not how she sees it.
“I just want to be with my Miss America sisters because there’s no other bond that you can find. There’s a statistic that you’re less likely to have a daughter compete at Miss America than you are to have a son in the Super Bowl, so I think that’s pretty cool that I can be a part of that statistic now,” she says with a laugh.
“I’m just happy to be there and to be a part of 100 years of women empowerment, service and leadership.”
The United States looked a whole lot different a century ago when the first Miss America pageant was held. In fact, it was only the year prior (1920) that women won the right to vote, which furthered the crack in the door for them to practice law, as well.
So, for Choy, it’s much more than just another accolade and a tiara. She feels — and welcomes — the weight of representation on her shoulders.
“I want the modern woman to be reflected in who Miss America is. Being a multi-ethnic individual myself, being someone who graduated law school and being from the most diverse state in the country is so powerful for me because those are the things our country needs more than ever; to recognize how beautiful and special it is to be uniquely you,” she says.
“The history of Miss America… didn’t always recognize that diversity,” she continues. “And, to bring the legacy of the Miss Hawai‘i sisterhood into who I am and representing that 100 years is really special, too. I’m not just representing myself, but the women who held the title before me. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the dynamics of that. It’s sad that we fight for the same things we were 100 years ago for women, but I hope by just being there, I can empower another girl to see herself where I’m standing.”
With Choy’s social impact statement being “women’s empowerment through partnership,” she’s no stranger to lifting up her fellow females. The ‘Ewa Beach native (who explains where she lives in a very Hawai‘i fashion by describing what local-kine landmarks are near her house) lives a life of service, whether she’s volunteering for a local organization (Hawai‘i Literacy, Women’s Fund of Hawai‘i, YWCA O‘ahu and Special Olympics Hawai‘i, to name a few), mentoring young girls, or, in recent years, hard at work studying to become an attorney who will one day represent women in the courtroom.
Although today, Choy possesses attributes such as grace, benevolence and self-certainty effortlessly, it wasn’t always so natural for her. As a student at ‘Aiea’s St. Elizabeth School and later Punahou School, she’s quick to describe herself as “quiet and shy” and one who “never used my voice.”
“Punahou was difficult. I was plucked from a class of 21 students (at St. Elizabeth’s) into a class of 460-plus students,” Choy explains. “It was challenging. I think those were some of the hardest days of my life because it’s not just high school, but you have social media pressure, the pressure to fit in and be liked by everybody, and to be that ‘popular’ student — which I was not — but I worked really hard. I was commuting on a bus, waking up at 5 a.m. in ‘Ewa, and not getting home until after 5 or 6 p.m. some days because of traffic. There were so many pressures — academics, socially, financially, commuting, fitting in.
“What helped me at Punahou was finding service — finding volunteer opportunities. I ended up being a part of a program called Luke Leaders and also Interact Club — basically, any club that revolved around service.
“When I took myself out of the equation of feeling sorry for myself or feeling like I didn’t belong, I turned my attention outward to other people and I felt so much better because I knew the privilege of the education that I was receiving — it has to go to other people. At the time, our Punahou president would say, ‘to how much is given is as much is expected,’ and that really carried me through Punahou, undergrad college at UH and law school; to really hone into that message, even on the days that I felt so low and not up to the challenge, and to remember it’s not about me or the things that I’m doing, but what I can do for other people.”
Choy credits her supportive parents for her grit and selfless attitude, as well as the place that she’ll soon represent on a national stage — a place that she loves so deeply.
“Here, you think about people before yourself,” she says. “Hawai‘i’s culture really helps you remember to treat other people with so much kindness and respect that we don’t always see today or sometimes in the continental mainland. I think the more you expand your world and meet other people shapes your perspective and you recognize, like, ‘Hey, I’ve been given such a great opportunity, it would be such a waste and so selfish of me to save it for myself.’ I think we’re all here for a purpose to find that. I didn’t know that at Punahou. I was very sad a lot of the time. I wasn’t patient with who I was. I wanted to fit in so badly and I would cry some nights just thinking about what’s wrong with me or why don’t people like me. That informed me to really know now that I never want anyone to feel that way.”
You’d never know that Choy, who beams a sunny disposition even when speaking about turbulent times in her past, once felt like an outcast. But, as they say, there are no rainbows without any rain.
Choy will surely keep that mindset as she vies for the Miss America title (learn more about where to watch/ stream the program at missamerica.org). She’s currently two-for-two, after winning Miss Chinatown in 2019 and Miss Hawai‘i earlier this year. As far as preparation goes, she says she puts her energy into introspection.
“I didn’t diet; I didn’t do anything special. I just wanted to be up there and be myself, like, ‘This is who I am. This is Courtney.’
“Nerves aside, I am just so honored and privileged to represent my state and my home. I’m a product of this place — born and raised and educated here — and that’s what I want people to realize. There are so many opportunities in our state to really develop the best version of yourself. That’s who I want to bring to Miss America.”
Outside of her lavish pageant lifestyle and attorney aspirations, Choy is just your average 20-something year-old, who spends her free time hanging out with her dogs, Chibi and Koa, at the beach (Nimitz is her favorite), chowing down on some junk food (“I just love pizza”), chatting about life’s ebbs and flows with her nearest and dearest, or shopping till she drops.
Now that Choy proudly stands on a platform she once looked up to, she offers words of encouragement for young girls who were once in her shoes.
“Be proud of who you are and the person that you’re becoming. The experiences that we have, whether it’s positive or negative, help us to grow and learn more about ourselves. I didn’t always know that growing up. I would think of things as happening to me and not happening for me. Just be kind, serve your community and believe in yourself. You have everything you need in yourself to succeed and be the best person that you are.”