Audrey Hepburn, poetry, and sage advice from former Miss Georgia Michaela Grace Lackey Best
Michaela Grace Lackey Best relishes her Miss Georgia crown and will never forget the moment when she officially learned the spine-tingling news. A lifelong dancer and fleeting singer, Best was captivated by the performing arts while coming of age at Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church in Marietta. Unlike other ambitious girls, Best waited until she was 14 before competing in a beauty pageant.
Best bears a striking resemblance to fashion and movie icon Audrey Hepburn, coincidentally her greatest vintage pop culture influence. And the similarities don’t stop there. Besides Best’s multifaceted performing arts pedigree, she is passionate about assisting the less fortunate. The Breakfast at Tiffany’s star was one of the first celebrities to promote UNICEF and feed starving kids during multiple trips to Africa before her premature demise from Appendiceal cancer in 1993.
I had an opportunity to speak with Best at length while she served as grand marshal of the annual Alapaha Station Celebration festival. As she signed autographs and met citizens on that unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon in November, it was readily apparent that she exemplifies a down to earth, charming, and expressive personality that future Miss Georgia’s could stand to emulate.
The beauty maven humorously chronicles dancing in the basement of Mt. Bethel when she was only two years old, appearing onstage with “Bless the Broken Road” country pop trio Rascal Flatts as a backup dancer, kissing a llama, and her definition of the perfect day.
A heretofore unpublicized knack for writing poetry receives its exclusive worldwide debut with “Antonio’s Gift to Me,” a touching tribute to Best’s dance teacher-mentor. What sage advice might Best unleash to young ladies dreaming of competing in a pageant? And was her one year reign as Miss Georgia full of nothing but rose gardens? Stick around for the remedies.
The Michaela Grace Lackey Best Interview
Do folks always mispronounce your name?
No one could ever pronounce my name, and still to this day, I get so many different pronunciations. A stage announcer at the Alapaha Station Celebration called me “Michelle!”
Being a performer and in the dance world, we have stage names. So I’ve always gone as Michaela Grace in the dance world. Saying “Michaela Lackey Best” doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily as “Michaela Grace Lackey Best.”
Take us back to the moment when they announced you were Miss Georgia.
Blessed is probably the best word to describe how I felt. There were approximately 40 girls in the finals. I was fortunate in that I really enjoyed being with all the girls who advanced to the top five with me. And we’re all friends. To know the other ladies were genuine people, I was very confident that God had the right girl.
Whether it was me or not, I felt confident that any of us could go on to Miss America and represent our state very well. I was especially calm being in the top five. Carly Floyd, the first runner-up, and I are very good friends, since we first met when we competed in the Miss Georgia Outstanding Teen Program.
Earlier in the week, we had been talking about just everything, including God’s plans. So when it got down to Carly and me, it was an overwhelming feeling of ‘Wow, this is just the coolest thing.’ I was very happy to be standing there with her. And if she had been announced Miss Georgia, I would have been just as excited for her. You know, I am the third consecutive Miss Georgia from Marietta.
What was the first pageant that you participated in?
I didn’t start pageants when I was really young — I waited until I was about age 14. I entered the Miss Atlanta Teen Pageant, and I got first runner-up. At that time, first runner-up was actually a title, so my first title was “Atlanta’s Most Beautiful Teen.” It was kind of funny to have that title, since the Miss America system doesn’t normally give those titles out.
The next year I competed for Miss Georgia’s Outstanding Teen. It took me two years to win that. However, I took two years off, but then I decided I missed the program. I definitely wanted to be Miss America someday.
Again, it took two years for me to win Miss Georgia, so two is my lucky number. We have only had two Miss America winners from Georgia — Neva Jane Langley in 1953 and an excruciating 63-year-wait before Betty Cantrell of Warner Robbins earned the title. Two since the pageant began almost 100 years ago in 1921 [laughs]. While I was really disappointed that I did not become Miss America, I had a memorable experience competing in Las Vegas for the crown in January 2012.
When did dancing enter your life?
I was dancing all the time in my hometown of Marietta, located about 20 minutes away from Atlanta. I started at age two and a half in the basement of my church — Mt. Bethel United Methodist — and if I wasn’t in dance class, I was dancing in the living room or dancing through the grocery store. I told my mom from day one, “I’m gonna be a professional dancer and a princess.”
At that age my mom probably thought, ‘Oh, she’s gonna grow out of it. That’s all little girls wanna be.’ Well sure enough, here I am, contemporary dance major and Miss Georgia. I guess I got the best of both worlds.
I just took to dancing very naturally. I can’t recall any particular book or movie that influenced me to dance. I loved to move, and the fact that I had so much energy, putting me into dance class was a natural progression.
From there I found an actual dance studio, from there we went to a better dance studio, and then I decided I wanted to make it my career. So I went to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, which is where I obtained my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.
Are you a singer, too?
I sang in my church choir. I can’t say I performed any solo spots. One time when I was very little, my church was putting on a Christmas play. I was down there with my preschool. They said, “Okay, now let’s have all the angels come up” [they were all dressed in costume].
Well, I walked up there, as my teacher couldn’t grab me in time. I wasn’t in costume, and my parents were going, “Oh my god, what is Michaela doing?” The preacher grabbed me and inquired, “Are you an angel too?” I replied, “My daddy says I am.” That was the closest thing I had to a solo at church, my “angel moment” [laughs].
I was also in the honor chorus in elementary school, which was a lot of fun. But I feel like it’s one of those things where if you don’t use it, you definitely lose it. I used to have really nice pitch, but now not so much.
It’s funny, though, because a lot of the former Miss Georgia’s are singers. I’m one of the few dancers they’ve had. In my first appearance as Miss Georgia, I went down to the Marine Corps Logistic Base in Albany.
Someone came up to me and said, “Oh, Miss Georgia, you’re gonna sing our National Anthem!” I was like, “Oh no, no I am not!” [laughs]. They were probably so used to Miss Georgia always singing for them, so it’s neat that I can bring a different side of Miss Georgia to them.
Who are some of your favorite musical artists?
I love to listen to music, as that goes right along with dance. I really enjoy Rascal Flatts and love Carrie Underwood. Those are probably my two top picks. I’ve never really attended many concerts.
If you can believe it, I was the back-up dancer for Rascal Flatts one time during their Bob That Head tour [January 23, 2009]. For two weeks straight, I was calling in at 6 a.m. for these tickets.
I had never been in an area where Rascal Flatts had come, so the fact they were coming to the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, made me decide I had to call in and get these tickets. Unfortunately, I never got any.
The Thursday before the concert, my rehearsal director asked us, “Now I don’t know, should we have rehearsal Friday or not, ladies?” because she was actually going to be dancing with them. She inquired, “Do you want to audition for them?” I went, “Are you kidding? I’d love to audition!”
I got to go and do my thing, and as it turns out, I was recruited. So on Friday I found myself in the show. I got to meet the band, and Jessica Simpson’s dressing room was on the other side of mine. Jessica was going country, so she was their opening act. My friends got front row tickets.
It was one of the easiest performances I’ve ever done. They told me to freestyle it, so I got to wear whatever I wanted. I put on my cowboy hat, they put us in a big spiral staircase all in silhouette, and through the entire concert we jammed out to their music.
I guess it added more to the overall effect than what you would normally see for the Black Eyed Peas. No hip hop dancing, it was more the effect of the environment rather than true back-up dancing.
I wanted to do more shows, but since I was still in high school, that wasn’t possible. It was simply a mind-boggling, crazy experience.
Is it true you admire Audrey Hepburn?
I love old Hollywood glam. She is incredible to me. Not only was she an outstanding actress, she remains a fashion icon. But it was her community service and volunteer work for UNICEF that is really cool to me.
When I was younger, I didn’t know who she was. But so many people told me that when I have my hair up, I resembled Audrey Hepburn. I’m like a different person in that regard. If I put it up, I feel like I’m ready to perform. And if it’s down, I feel a little bit more relaxed.
Anyway, I finally asked my mom, “Who is Audrey Hepburn?” She explained her background story to me, and from that day forward, I became infatuated with her almost. That’s how my interest in her started. One of my favorite Audrey films is My Fair Lady . Wait Until Dark  was pretty unsettling when I watched it and another challenging role for Audrey.
I am the first Miss Georgia to hold both the Outstanding Teen title and the Miss title, which shows how beneficial our teen program is towards young ladies wanting to compete on the Miss level. At our forum party, it’s themed every year. In 2007 Miss Georgia Leah Massey decided to do a Classic Hollywood glamour evening, so I dressed up as Audrey Hepburn.
Were there any negative aspects to being Miss Georgia?
There were not any negative aspects. Every morning I would wake up and think about who I was, how I got to where I was, and something that I was very proud of or something that had been a blessing in my life.
By thinking about those things every morning, it not only kept me grounded, but it kept me with a very positive outlook on everything throughout the day. In that way, you didn’t have a negative perspective.
I met so many people who were less fortunate than I was, and it had an impact. I thought, ‘Wow, how can I even complain about getting up early this morning when there are people who don’t even have a home?’
How did all the traveling suit you?
I was definitely excited to travel. I hadn’t seen much of Georgia, so it was an interesting experience. I had no clue there was a Nashville, Georgia. There’s an incorporated community named Cuba [laughs].
The only thing I don’t like about traveling is traffic. It’s often bumper to bumper, like a parking lot. Other than that, I relish going on road trips. I had never had a car before I was Miss Georgia. When I was given the keys to a Kia Sorento from a Columbus, Georgia, dealership — I got to drive it for a year — I told the dealer I had never had a car. He looked like, ‘Do I want to give her these keys?’ [laughs]. I named the car “Kate” after Kate Middleton. I thought that was a very royal name.
I’ve always been a good driver and my record is very clean. I think I’ve had more driving experience than many people since I don’t drink or party. I was always the designated driver. Even when I turned 21, it took three months before I took my first drink. It was with my mom at California Pizza Kitchen.
I was more into the fact that the fruit they had put on my little Piña Colada looked like a bunny rabbit, since it was around Easter. After drinking it, I decided it did not taste good at all. My mom just laughed at me.
Tell us about one of your most memorable trips as Miss Georgia.
Fall brings festival season, where there are lots of animals. I got to ride a camel, I got to meet Dr. Doolittle’s monkey, and I managed to play with llamas in Nashville. They are so sweet. I feel bad, because I had always put llamas in the same category as camels, thinking they were nasty, spit, and drooled. But no, they did none of that. I actually got llama kisses, basically a little nudge on my cheek. And they’re extremely soft.
If I could have any pet as a therapy animal to bring with me to the children’s hospitals, it would be a llama. During that same trip, I stomped grapes for the first time with their mayor.
Giving back to the community is a true passion of yours.
I worked with Children’s Miracle Network [CMN], since that is the national platform for Miss America. I loved helping all the kids. We put on a P.J. party to help raise funds. We had face painting, balloon popping, lots of crazy games with cotton balls, just a fun little party to raise money.
My personal platform was P.A.S.S.I.O.N, which stands for Performing Artists Serving Society in Our Neighborhoods. That was my outreach program for the performing arts. It remains extremely close to my heart.
I put on various benefit performances that involved different art such as dance, singing, and music. Whatever we could find to collaborate on and raise money for CMN or any charity.
I also did art therapy, which I could incorporate into CMN with the kids in the hospital. I offered free classes for low-income families. It was a dream of mine. I collected different dance clothes — ballet tights, leotards — to give those families free dance lessons for a day.
I taught one little girl that was homeless. I didn’t realize this at the time. One of the biggest deals for her was not only taking the ballet class but having on the pink tights so she could leap, the leotard, her hair done — the complete look. It wasn’t raising money, but I was able to share and give back to the community my love for the arts. It was so much fun.
Do you have a perfect day?
Waking up sometime in the afternoon and staying in my P.J.’s all day long. Goodness gracious no, I’m not a morning person. I love arts and crafts.
I especially love to scrapbook. It’s my time where I can really look back on everything that I’ve done, soak it all in, and remember everything. I scrapbook everything. I actually started when I was really young. I didn’t have a pet of my own.
While my brothers were playing baseball, I would go around and take photographs of everyone’s dogs. And I would scrapbook all the different dogs I had seen.
Eventually I compiled a dog encyclopedia book, and I would write down all the different breeds I saw. From there on, I continued to scrapbook, whether family/friend photos, things at school, and it was natural to scrapbook my pageant life. Because there’s a lot of photos [laughs].
I used to play softball and basketball, so every now and then I still like to throw the ball around or go out on the court. I definitely enjoy writing poetry.
When did you become interested in writing poetry?
I’ve been more open about it since I graduated high school. I’ve always written poetry, but I never realized that’s what it was. Maybe I was a little embarrassed to tell people I wrote or let them read anything.
When I was at school, there was a local coffeehouse down the street hosting an open mike night. I was like, “Oh, I really wanna do that, but I just don’t know…” When I realized none of my friends were there, I thought, ‘This is the best time, no one has any idea who I am.’
So I got up there and read my own original work, and it was the best feeling. I felt as if I was finally able to get things off my chest that I had hidden in my notebook for so long. I didn’t have to explain what it was about, I could just say it. To me, it was so beautiful to be able to do.
I create things based off of personal life experiences. For example, if I’m going through a hard time, I usually like to dance out my feelings. But you can’t always do that, so writing them down in words really helps me.
As Miss Georgia, I met so many people and learned about their experiences. I hadn’t been through it, but I felt like I had, as I sympathized for them and felt like I had made a personal connection. Therefore, I wrote about their personal experiences.
Sometimes I don’t even put titles on them. Occasionally there will be a title, but that’s honestly the last thing I worry about. I don’t think about how it’s going to finish. Sometimes I’ll write it, and it’ll stay in the notebook for weeks or even months until I’ve had more time to digest the experience.
I wrote the following poem after my dear friend, Antonio Sisk, passed away on July 23, 2009. I presented it to his family at his funeral. Antonio was also my dance partner and teacher for many years.
Antonio’s Gift to Me: Sweet memories of us stepping on stage and seeing your smile glow, no matter how our lifts went you always told me we stole the show, closing my eyes to make your presence real one more time, for God to take you so soon seems like such a crime, the passion you showed me in dance will never leave my heart, with your spirit around me every time I step on stage, we’ll never drift apart, you partner with the angels now and I can’t help but to feel frustration, my tears and love for you will go into my hard work and dedication, I will take part of you with me wherever I go, I will feel you in my upper body, right down to my pointed toe, you will be my muse and inspiration and I will never dance alone, you were a huge part of my success and to the world it will be known.
When I was crowned Miss Georgia, Maya Angelou was present in Winston-Salem. She was very involved with our school sponsor-wise. We have “Authoring Actions,” which is a kids’ poetry club getting them to write out their feelings instead of taking out their aggression on others.
I’ve thought it would be so cool to take some of their original work, some of Ms. Angelou’s, along with mine and put it into a collaborative book which could be sold. All the proceeds could go to Authoring Actions or other poetry groups out there for kids. How cool would that be?
What advice would you give to young ladies dreaming about entering a pageant?
I would tell them to not conform. I like being unique. I’ve always tried to find something in me that might set me apart from other people.
As you might imagine, a lot of stereotypes go into the pageant world where you have to look a certain way, act a certain way, certain things have to be done to your body in order to compete. That is one of the biggest misconceptions in the pageant world.
It’s so interesting when I meet people. After talking to them for awhile, they’re like, ‘Wow, you’re nothing like what I thought you were gonna be like.’ And I’m glad of that. They have this idea of what a pageant girl is, and then hopefully I can break it.
So my best advice to them is to stay true to themselves and have fun while doing it. If I’m judging a pageant, I’m gonna judge the girl that looks like she’s having the time of her life up there versus the girl who is extremely fake looking, honestly.
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