USC University of Southern California

Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC

USC dental student sets out to become first “Dr. Miss California USA”

laurel henderson usc dentistry
Laurel Henderson DDS ’17 (Photo: Tiffany Neimar DDS ’18)

Reigning Miss Universal City USA Laurel Henderson DDS ’17 aims to inspire young women and challenge pageant girl stereotypes by becoming the first “Dr. Miss California USA.” 


Between the ages of 16 and 22, I worked at a girls’ summer camp on the shore of Lake Champlain in Colchester, Vt. as a summer camp counselor. I spent my days dressing up in ridiculous costumes, planning “Extravaganzas,” teaching swimming lessons, soothing homesick campers and providing mentorship to young women in an informal and friendly way.

We had a rule that no celebrity posters were allowed in the cabins to encourage the girls to find better role models — real women who are changing the world right in front of them.

Each fall after I returned to school, I would stay in contact with my campers and answer letters and emails asking for advice about relationships and parties. The trust that these young women placed in me and continue to place in me is incredibly cherished.

One camper even wrote her admissions essay to a prestigious private high school about her time in my cabin and sent me the essay. In turn, I wrote my admissions essay for dental school about her and my love for inspiring and empowering young women.

It has been clear to me since those six summers spent at camp, that my purpose in life — both personally and professionally — is in the service of young women who need a role model.

“I hope I win a crown in December, but, even if I don’t, I know that I have created an environment where being smart, confident, beautiful and giving isn’t rare … “
—Laurel Henderson DDS ’17

My choice to enter the pageant world and to attempt to become the first ever “Doctor Miss California USA” came rather naturally after I decided to be a role model. Anyone who has been my patient, taken one of my fitness classes or had the hilarious fortune of working with me knows that I have a flair for making others laugh and smile: I love the spotlight! I thought about the image of pageant women and how infrequently educated women are represented in this realm.

It seems the recurring trope of pageant women is that they cannot articulate themselves in an onstage question but feel comfortable walking in heels and a bathing suit.

Being the competitive soul that I am, I decided that I wanted to bring something no one has ever seen before to the pageant arena: a confident, educated, articulate young woman who can walk in heels and charm a crowd of strangers with the best of them.

To the surprise of my family and frankly, myself as well, I won my regional pageant after just three weeks of preparation, wearing borrowed shoes and a resale gown. I was crowned Miss Universal City USA this March and have been preparing ever since for Miss California USA this December.

It seems that every time I take a risk, the reward is always greater than the risk of failure. I have inspired women in my journey to be crowned Miss California USA. In turn, they have inspired me.

I have a friend at school who now is pursuing her passion of creating makeup tutorials and is entering video contests with her artistic work. I have a faculty member who saw a pageant flyer and encouraged her own daughter to try a pageant to see how it helped her develop as a young leader. A mother at my aerial silks classes asked me to start having lunch with her daughter to encourage her to pursue the sciences in addition to her love of Cirque du Soleil. In fact the more I risk, the more I feel like I am changing the world around me.

I hope I win a crown in December, but, even if I don’t, I know that I have created an environment where being smart, confident, beautiful and giving isn’t rare and that failure isn’t failure if you’ve elevated the community around you on your way to greatness.

Originally published in Fall 2016 TroDent.

Posted 10242016