MANSFIELD -- If Grace Brown can pull off a win at this year’s Miss Ohio competition, she’ll go down in history in more ways than one.
Thirty years ago, Brown’s mother Renee Autherson was crowned Miss Ohio 1991. If Grace wins, she and Renee (both Heath High School graduates) will be the first mother-daughter pair to hold the Miss Ohio title and the 12th mother-daughter pair of state titleholders in the history of the Miss America competition.
“I've been involved with the program my entire life because of my mom," Grace said. "She ran a local (preliminary) when I was a kid, and I saw so many girls develop into amazing, strong independent women through the program.”
Despite growing up as the daughter of a Miss Ohio, Grace's pageant journey didn't start until she was in her late teens.
“People have been asking me my entire life if I wanted to compete or if I wanted to be Miss America. And the answer was always no,” Grace said. “I was extremely shy, but also I wanted to pave my own path and create a different life for myself -- not that I didn't respect and appreciate my mom's life or her story -- but I wanted to have my own.
"I was very independent growing up.”
Renee enrolled Grace in dance classes, hoping that one day she might put the talent to use on the Miss America stage. But she didn't push.
Grace nearly made her pageant debut at age 11, but dropped out at the last minute.
“We bought her a dress and we headed out that morning. We're about a mile away from the venue and Grace says I don't want to do it,” Renee recalled. “When she says no’ it's no, so there was no discussion. It was just, ‘OK, turn around. Let's go.’ And we really never spoke about a pageant again.”
That all changed when the Browns attended a Miss Ohio competition in 2016 at the Renaissance Theater in Mansfield. In the end, it was Grace’s older brother Peyton who convinced her to give it a shot.
“Sitting in the audience, her brother was like ‘Grace, what are you doing? Why aren't you doing this? You've got Mom, you've got talent, you're smart,’” Renee recalled. “By the end of that night, she had decided to jump in.”
Peyton remains his sister's No. 1 fan.
“He's probably the most upset when she doesn't win,” Renee said. “I'm talking real rage.”
Grace has earned more than $10,000 in scholarship funds since beginning the program. She entered her first pageant, Miss Ohio Outstanding Teen, in 2017 and was first runner-up.
The next year, she contended for Miss Ohio, earning a spot in the top 10. The following year, she was the Miss Ohio runner-up.
Grace planned to enter again in 2020, but the competition was cancelled. It was disappointing, but the unexpected delay didn't keep her from competing a third time.
“I don’t give up,” Grace said. “I’m super persistent. If it's something I want, I'm going to work for it. I'm going to keep going and trying again and again until I succeed.”
Coincidentally, her mother also had a four year journey to Miss Ohio fame. Renee competed in local pageants for two years but failed to qualify. After taking a year off, she returned and earned a local title in her hometown qualifier as Miss Central Ohio in Newark. She was crowned Miss Ohio just a few months later.
For the talent portion, Grace will perform a tap dance routine -- just like Renee did to clinch her victory 30 years ago.
“Your troubles just melt away when you’re tap dancing," Renee said. "It's being able to communicate with your feet and let that audience experience that -- and there's nothing like that."
According to Renee, the first and only other Miss Ohio who performed tap for her talent was Marilyn Meseke, Miss Ohio 1938. She went on to win Miss America.
Miss Ohio contestants are also encouraged to have a social impact initiative. Last fall, Grace founded her own non-profit called Girl2Girl, which seeks to educate, motivate, and inspire middle school girls across Ohio to pursue careers in STEM.
If crowned Miss Ohio, Grace hopes to use her platform to continue that mission.
“We need more girls and women in STEM, because of quantity and quality. Right now in America, women only occupy 25 percent of job positions in STEM. And by 2030 we will face a deficit of over 1 million trained professionals in these fields," she said.
Grace hopes to be a voice of inspiration for girls that may not have considered a STEM career -- girls just like her.
“I had absolutely no intention to study STEM myself when I was in high school," she said. "But my sophomore biology teacher approached me after class one day and told me that I had a unique skill for understanding biology.
"He told me to consider a career in science and I started doing my own research and found a passion there.”
Grace is currently studying biology with a focus in pre-med. After graduation, she plans to go to medical school and specialize in obstetrics and gynecology.
Over the past couple of years, Grace has visited middle schools across the state to discuss the possibilities that STEM presents. So far, she’s reached more than 3,000 girls.
“I tell them my story and stories of several other women who have paved the road in STEM. And I just present them with the opportunities that careers in STEM offer, and give them advice about how to pursue STEM themselves.”
Miss Ohio Week 2021 starts next week. A schedule of events is posted below.
A free "reverse parade will take place in the Renaissance Theater's backlot on June 19 from 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Contestants will line up and hand out autograph packs; the public is welcome to drive through and meet prospective Miss Ohios.
Unfortunately, there will be no traditional Carrousel Meet & Greet this year.
Miss Ohio Outstanding Teen – June 15 at 7 p.m. – Renaissance Theatre
Miss Ohio Preliminary #1 – June 17 at 7:30 p.m. – Renaissance Theatre
Miss Ohio Preliminary #2 – June 18 at 7:30 p.m. – Renaissance Theatre
Miss Ohio Finals & Crowning – June 19 at 7:30 p.m. – Renaissance Theatre