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What better way to kick off the premier issue of BeautyLook Magazine than by featuring the winner of this year’s Miss Illinois USA pageant?  We spent a few hours with reigning beauty queen Ashley Hooks, talking about everything from her personal life to modeling and the pageant world.  With a long history of activism, leadership and charitable works, Ashely proves beauty can definitely be more than skin deep.

Thanks for talking with us, Ashley.  Please tell us a little about your personal experiences with the Miss Illinois pageants. What goes on between first signing up, and first walking on stage?

My first Miss Illinois USA pageant was an interesting experience, to say the least.  It was something I never thought I would do – and yet it exceeded my expectations.

I signed up after being enthralled watching the Miss USA pageant, when Rima Fakih won in 2010.  I decided to compete because I believed my background in public service and my interest in modeling would make me a good representative for Illinois in the Miss USA pageant.

I also thought that becoming the next Miss Illinois USA would provide a platform for me to spread the word about some of the charities I am passionate about.  Little did I know the extent to which this all would eventually come true.

I remember during orientation in October 2010, before the Miss Illinois USA pageant, I specifically pinpointed two girls (Angela Sparrow and Stacey Juris) who I thought were simply gorgeous.  I  thought to myself, “there’s my competition!”  Sure enough, that year Angela won, Stacey placed first runner-up, and I was second runner-up.

Leading up to the pageant weekend, I was pretty clueless about the whole experience.  I had friends who had competed years before.  But having never thought I would compete, I paid little attention to pageant etiquette.

The lovely and beautiful Mia Heaston, Miss Illinois USA 2007, exchanged several email and phone conversations with me to lay the foundation for how to prepare.  Her advice was invaluable.  But when I arrived at  the pageant at McCormick Place in November, everything was still new to me.

Oddly enough, I expected the worst.  I expected that the other girls may be nasty and ‘pageant patty, but it turned out that many of the girls were just like me.  They were friendly and smart, and there was no drama!  Above all, we enjoyed each other’s company, we helped each other and became friends.

ADRENALINE RUSH, THRILL: two terms to explain what walking on stage was like the first time.  I loved it.

Did you receive any special training for your first pageant?

No special training for my first pageant.  I relied on advice from Mia Heaston, Miss Illinois USA 2007.  As well as advice from friends who competed in past years.  And prior experience teaching college students how to do a runway walk (for a charity fashion show I participated in during college).  As well as teachings from my mom about poise and etiquette.

What’s it like backstage at a beauty  pageant?

Half-naked gals, energy, nerves, bling, sequins and shiny things everywhere, dresses (long and short), six-inch heels, lip gloss, setting powder, hair spray, butt glue, chaperones, and never-enough-mirrors.

You mentioned a love of dressing up as one of your inspirations for applying to your first pageant, and pageant gowns certainly fall into the ‘dress up’ category.  Where exactly do those pageant gowns come from?   How involved are contestants in picking or designing them?

The first year, I told Mia I was going to go with something simple and elegant and explained that I disliked ‘bling.’  She strongly recommended that I re-think it, as it was a pageant and my dress would need to have stage presence.  I ended up buying my dress from Peaches after scouring the internet for ‘pageant dresses’ and quickly getting an idea of what I should look like.

The second year, I bought my dress from the official pageant dress sponsor, The Pageant Room.  I fell in love with my dress as soon as I put it on.  We made slight alterations and I was ready.

In preparation for Miss USA, I used my award from winning the Illinois title and went with a dress designed by MacDuggal.  I worked with one of his stylists to create the dress that I wanted.  My design was similar to the dress worn by Charlize Theron in the J’Adore Dior commercial with Marilyn Monroe.

I was an absolute nervous wreck when I was waiting for the dress to be made, because I could not see it or touch it.  But I could not have been more pleased with the turnout.  I absolutely LOVED my dress and how it looked on the Miss USA stage.

Everyone wants to know…  do you get to keep the crown?

Yes! The crown is mine, forever!

It takes more than beauty to win a pageant. A lot more. What do you feel is your biggest pageant-winning quality?

Hmmm…just one?  No go!

Ultimately, I firmly believe it takes someone who is confident, goal-oriented, and charismatic. All three of those qualities have to be there, not just one.

Name one or two good things that have been the result of your Miss Illinois title:

One, I have had the opportunity to partner with some wonderful causes, organizations, and people.

Two, I have grown in a way that would not be possible had I not competed in 2010 and 2011.  I feel confident, I feel whole and I feel purposeful.

Any advice for aspiring beauty pageant contestants?

The competition is more about the journey rather than winning.  If you go into it with that positive attitude, it will be a gratifying, fruitful and enjoyable experience that will have lasting benefits.

You’ve mentioned modeling as something you’d like to devote more attention to after your reign as Miss Illinois.  If you had to pick a particular magazine or publication that best defines your modeling goals… what would that be?

Vogue.  Or Sports Illustrated, Swimsuit Edition. Also Pageant Girl Magazine.  Public Servant or Advocate for various causes (such as ovarian cancer awareness and education).

What haven’t you done yet as a model yet, but would like to?

I’m all about the extremes.  I’d like to do something like very dramatic and dark, high fashion.  I’d also like to do an innocent, baby doll-looking shoot with pastels. Strange concepts, I know.  But I love artistic shoots.

When you’re not all dolled-up for a pageant or photo shoot, what’s your day-to-day look?

I work for the State of Illinois, so typically I have to dress in business attire Monday through Thursday (Friday is more casual). On the weekends I’m either in workout gear – shorts or yoga pants and a tank or tee shirt – or in casual clothes. My favorite stores are J.Crew, Urban Outfitters and Macys for everyday clothes.

Tell us a little about little Ashley Hooks… what were you like a small child?

I was a very curious kid. My parents said I was like a sponge; I soaked up any information I saw or heard. I keenly remember being very interested in sports and science. My parents did a great job keeping me active.

Your father has a history of military, legal and political service. During our pre-interview, you described your father as being ‘hard’ when you were growing up (in a good way).  How did that help mould the successful person you are today?

My dad was and still is hard core… both my parents are.  They set a high standard for my sister and me.

Your parents had concerns at first about your involvement with modeling and pageants.  Has that changed after winning Miss Illinois?

Let me begin by saying, I have the best parents in the world. I believe that they have done an amazing job raising my sister and me.

My parents have always wanted the best for us. They were not familiar with the world of pageants, modeling and entertainment. All they knew was the glorified and sometimes not-so-glorified moments of that type of fame. So, naturally, they didn’t want me to get into something that would make me compromise my values.  However, I made them believers in the pageant when I placed the first year, and then won the second year I competed in the Miss Illinois USA pageant.

Ever since I made the decision to compete, they’ve stood by me and cheered me on!  They trust me and know that I will stay true to myself and be the best I can be.

What do you see yourself doing one year or ten years from now?

Modeling and getting my Masters in Public Policy and Administration.

Between work, promoting causes, and your Miss Illinois responsibilities we’re guessing you don’t have a lot of free time.  When you do get to kick back and relax… what can we find you doing?

I spend time with family and friends.  When it’s warm outside one may find me on my bike at the lakefront or sunbathing on a deck, beach or pool.  I also enjoy cooking and baking.  I love finding new recipes and cooking for others.

Do you have a favorite movie?

My all-time favorite movie is Love and Basketball.  I also enjoy any movie with Angelina Jolie.  I think she’s beautiful, and she exudes confidence and strength.

You have such a long history of activism and promoting causes that it’s difficult to know where to begin.  Let’s start by asking about your involvement in youth education.  How did you first get started with that?

The seeds for my interest in education and social justice were planted early by my extended family and my parents, Debra and William Hooks.  My grandmother was a grade school teacher.  My mother is an educational administrator, and my father is a Cook County Circuit Court judge and retired Marine lieutenant colonel.

Along with my parent’s involvement in social causes, I was also influenced by my cousin, the late Honorable Benjamin Hooks, 2007 Presidential Medal of Freedom award winner.  Dr. Hooks was the second-longest tenured Executive Director of the NAACP and strategized with Thurgood Marshall in Brown v. Board, the case that paved the way for equality in education.

Further, my first job out of college was as an education organizer in Albany New York. There I organized community and lobbied state and local governments to improve the quality of education across the state of New York.

What does it mean to be a celebrity spokesperson? What responsibilities and expectations come with promoting a cause?

As a celebrity spokesperson you have the unique opportunity to use your “fame” to spread messages to your followers about priority causes that are close to your heart, and ones that can have a positive impact on others.

The way I look at it, people are going to listen to a celebrity a little closer than they would an average person.  So the celebrity has the responsibility to say something positive or informative.

Your mother was diagnosed with stage III cancer only one month before your title-winning pageant. That’s a devastating piece of news to receive, but obviously you pressed on.  Tell us a little about two of the cancer organizations you support: Bright Pink and Bears Care.

For Bright Pink, I challenge women and men to visit Bright Pink’s website to educate themselves about the signs and symptoms of ovarian and breast cancer, then spread the message to at least two women in your lives.  This simple act may urge someone to get tested for ovarian cancer or not ignore getting a mammogram.

While visiting the website, one can also donate to Bright Pink.  All contributions will aid in continuing the many educational and health services provided by Bright Pink.

Bears Care has raised millions of dollars for numerous charities that assist people in need.  They have raised significant amounts for medical research and health awareness programs focused on breast and ovarian cancer.

For those interested in making a donation to Bears Care, they can make checks payable to:


1920 Football Drive

Lake Forest, IL 60045


Please take a moment to visit the website of some of the other causes which Ashley supports:



Chicago Shares


Catholic Charities




St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital



MAKEUP / ART DIRECTION: NICOLE DeMET  www.nicoledemet.com

HAIR STYLING: TERRIA FONTAINE   www.terriafontaine.com