After winning the Distinguished Young Women of 2014 in Okaloosa County, Destin's Natalie Lawson is on a roll. She earned the state title in Winter Garden earlier this month and is now headed to the national stage in June.
"This is the first time for a girl from our county to win state," said Carole Byrd, director of the Okaloosa County chapter of Distinguished Young Women. "This is huge."
Formerly known as America 's Junior Miss, the program changed its name to Distinguished Young Women in 2010 and refers to itself as a scholarship program, not a pageant.
"They're trying to steer away from the image of being a beauty contest," said Byrd. "Way back in the 1950s and 1960s, we used a crown to award winners. Now, they use a medallion."
After winning DYW of Okaloosa County, the Fort Walton Beach High School senior and cheerleading captain was awarded scholarship money and even a proclamation at an August City Council meeting in Destin. However, she was still humble going to state.
"I just wanted to go there and do my very best," she said.
As the awards were called, Lawson placed in each of the five categories: fitness, talent, interview, public speaking, and scholastics. It wasn't until then that she thought she had a chance of winning the competition.
"After they called the top three scores in each category, I thought 'Oh my gosh, did I just win in all of the categories?' "
The feeling of winning state was "absolutely amazing," Lawson said.
"Now I get to go to nationals and represent Okaloosa County and Florida," she said proudly.
Lawson kept most of her program the same when she went to the state competition. For the talent portion, she played "Under the Sea" from her favorite Disney movie "The Little Mermaid" on the steel drums, an instrument her dad, Chuck, taught her. Both mom, Mia, and dad were in attendance to cheer their daughter on.
What was different at state was the interview portion of the competition where the women are given a question to answer on stage. When Lawson competed locally, she had about a month to prepare. At state, she had an hour.
"It was kind of nerve-wracking," she said.
No matter the outcome in June, Lawson says her experience with Distinguished Young Women has made a positive impact on her life.
"I'm so thankful that I made it so far and to all of the great people that have helped me get this far," she said. "I now know that with hard work you can achieve anything."