Destin resident Natalie Lawson signed up for the Distinguished Young Women program once she realized it was anything but the standard beauty pageant.
"The judges get to know you and they take into consideration things such as academics and your personality," Lawson said. "It's not just about being in a pretty dress and looking cute."
Formally 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.
Carole Byrd, director of the Okaloosa County chapter of Distinguished Young Women, has worked with the program since 1972, under its original name.
"They're trying to steer away from the image of a 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."
Founded in 1958, the program has awarded more than $93 million in cash scholarships at the local, state and national levels. And it's not the top winners that walk away with prizes. Locally, the program works with Troy University to provide opportunities to all of the participants. And since Distinguished Young Women is for high school seniors, it comes at the perfect time.
Even if she wasn't crowned, Lawson took home the title of 2014 Distinguished Young Woman in July.
"She just swept the thing," Byrd said. "She was never late to any meetings or events. She fits the bill.
Over a six-week period, contestants learn a fitness routine, interview with individual judges and participate in the DYW national campaign, Be Your Best Self, in which women reach out to young children, encouraging them to do and be their best.
The kind of characteristics that the Distinguished Young Women promotes is exactly what people should be striving for, Lawson said.
Instead of competition, there was more camaraderie between the young women, Lawson noted. She even made a few new friends through the experience.
"We would have themed practices one day we all wore 1980s styles," she said. "We never had any tension."
While winning the main title, Lawson was also given top awards in three of the five judged categories: fitness, self expression and talent she played the steel drums.
Watching in the crowd, July 27 at the Fort Walton Beach Auditorium the night of the program, were Lawson's parents, Mia and Chuck. Lawson learned to play the steel drums from her father and even borrowed his set for her performance.
The Fort Walton Beach High School cheerleading captain is used to multi-tasking. She's involved with several clubs while also applying to colleges throughout the country. She'd like to study astronomical biology. With her recent title win, she's earned $6,000 towards her college career.
As she prepares to advance to state in Winter Park, Lawson said she doesn't plan to participate in any other programs or pageants in the future.
"If there were more programs like this one, I would like to," she said. "I definitely urge girls to get involved with Distinguished Young Women."
The City of Destin awarded Lawson with a proclamation at the Aug. 19 City Council meeting. We are so proud of Natalie and her accomplishments, Mayor Sam Seevers said.