BY ED GEBERT
Times Bulletin Editor
VAN WERT - For Middle Point native Ayla Eley, her goal of becoming Miss Ohio-USA is still just out of reach, but her placing as the second runner-up at the pageant this past weekend has her encouraged. She also scored second runner-up in 2010, but failed to make the top 15 in the pageant last year.
"I am satisfied," she told The Times Bulletin. "Surprisingly, I'm very, very proud of myself. I know it's my third year of doing it, but last year I didn't place in the top 15, and I did everything I needed to to come back and fight for what I wanted to win. I came and tried to conquer my goal, and I got about as close as it gets. Out of 59 girls, I think that's pretty darn good!"Eley has plenty of experience in pageants, having also won the title of Queen Jubilee XXXV at the Peony Pageant in 2010.
After not placing in the top 15 a year ago, Eley found herself even more nervous while awaiting the announcement of the top 15 contestants this time.
"I was having a mini-heart attack!" she laughed. "The funny thing is there were three really tall beautiful girls who were around 5-10, and I was praying that I wouldn't be picked right after them, because when they put you in a lineup like that you go out in that order the same time, and they were going to compare me to those really tall girls. I didn't want to be put next to them... He kept calling girls except for me, and I was like, 'Call my name! I just didn't want to be called next to those girls, but I want you to call my name!' I was freaking out, especially after not getting into the top 15 last year."
She admitted that after last year's disappointment, she decided to examine everything to try to figure out what had gone wrong. Eley decided on two strategies.
First she made up her mind to become slimmer for this year's competition. Her size 8 dress had to be taken down to a size 0 after a steady regimen of diet and exercise.
"I have my own little personal trainer for a boyfriend," she explained. "We watch what we eat anyway. I cut out all gluten, wheat, no bread, and I'm just eating right and exercising twice a day for the past three months leading up to it."
The other major change for Eley was her hair color. The young woman who had competed as a blonde for the past two years in the Miss Ohio-USA pageant showed up in Portsmouth as a brunette.
"I thought it would set me apart in the competition being a brunette. Last year out of 70 girls, there were probably 50 blondes. The funny thing about that is I came back this year and out of 59 girls maybe 10 of them were blondes. The entire top five were all brunettes! I definitely failed to stand out because of my hair," she shared.
At age 21, Eley still has five more years of eligibility to compete for the crown of Miss Ohio-USA. How many more times will she try?
"This is such a hard question for me," confessed Eley. "My family has come every year, and I don't want to keep disappointing them, but I keep saying that someday I'm going to be the next Miss Ohio-USA."
She did say she is considering taking a year off from the pageant or even moving to the Miss America pageant system, noting that there is no entry fee and the prize package is actually more valuable. As second runner-up for Miss Ohio-USA, Eley received the traditional crystal engraved Miss Ohio-USA statue as well as a $40,000 scholarship to a Missouri college.
Whatever she decides, Eley knows she will have a tremendous amount of support as she chases her goal.
"I have the biggest cheering section in the whole place. I had probably 20 people there for me this year - friends, family, it's crazy how many people were on my side," she said. "I had so many people sending me prayers and calling and texting me asking for updates. I'm just glad I have so many supporters in my pageant endeavors. I promise, and I hope God is listening when I say this, I'm going to be Miss Ohio someday. Hopefully. Hopefully I won't keep everybody waiting too long."