BY: JONATHAN BISSONNETTE
Local representing Ocean State in Miss USA Competition
CENTRAL FALLS – Theresa Agonia remembers growing up watching the “Miss USA” and “Miss Universe” pageants, tuning in and, by her own admission, sitting too close to the television to watch these women from across the country and around the world take the stage and discuss how they gave back to their community.
“That always resonated well ...It was my Super Bowl,” she said.
Now 24, Agonia will be one of those women in front of a worldwide audience, perhaps inspiring young girls in much the same way she was, as the Cumberland resident and Central Falls High School alumna from the Class of 2009 will represent the Ocean State as Miss Rhode Island USA in the upcoming 2016 Miss USA competition.
Agonia first competed in a pageant at 16 years old, when she participated in Miss Portugal Rhode Island. A very small-scale pageant entirely in Portuguese, Agonia said from that moment on, she had been “bit by the pageant bug.”
Agonia said she learned all about her culture by participating in the pageant, taking questions on stage about Portuguese history and salsa dancing for the talent portion. She said that pageant provided many valuable lessons about poise, interview skills, public speaking, and involvement in her community.
However, she said her ultimate goal was always to get to the Miss USA competition. She entered the Miss Teen USA system and ran and placed both times in Rhode Island and after aging out of the division, entered the Miss USA division.
Agonia did well in each of her four years participating in Miss Rhode Island. She was a semifinalist in 2010, fourth runner-up in 2012, and second-runner up in 2013, before ultimately being crowned Miss Rhode Island last August.
“It helped me to keep pursing my goal and dream,” Agonia said of her first three years in Miss Rhode Island. “I continuously improved and learned how to be a better person and give back throughout process.”
Of equal importance, Agonia said the pageant circuit got her more involved civically, volunteering or learning about organizations and how she can help.
“It helped me be more civically aware …I learned that my voice mattered, pageantry helped with that,” she said.
Despite her success in her first three appearances in the competition, Agonia said it was a last-minute decision to participate last year as she entered a mere six weeks before the competition.
Agonia competed with 46 other women at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center on Aug. 30, 2015 to represent the Ocean State in the national Miss USA competition in 2016. When the field was narrowed to the top 15, Agonia was the last person whose name was called. She said that “the nerves started kicking in” but she was excited that she had another shot to prove herself. As the field was once more narrowed to the top five, Agonia again heard her name called and was thrilled to have another opportunity.
Her on-stage question was if she could invent something, what would it be and why, and she said that the first thing that came to mind was a pipeline to higher education.
“We need a better pipeline so that kids have access no matter where they come from,” she said.
While she was nervous waiting backstage after giving her answer, she eventually calmed herself by saying “I can do nothing more to win over the judges. I’ve worked hard, put my all into the process, it’s no longer up to me but them.”
As they started announcing the runners-up, Agonia said she kept thinking “wow, this could happen.” When they announced the first runner-up, confirming that Agonia had won Miss Rhode Island, she was astonished and shaking, but thrilled.
“Your adrenaline just rushes, you don’t know everything that happens in the moment. In the video, I grabbed my head in disbelief. I couldn’t believe it was happening,” she said. “I said ‘I’m going to Miss USA!’ I sounded like a little kid going to Disney! It felt like a dream come true. I still look at the sash and say, ‘Wow, that’s mine.’ Each time I put it on, I get that same feeling.”
When she looks back, Agonia says she always believed that she could end up on the television at the pageants she watched as a youth but she never knew if it would one day happen.
“I knew I had the work ethic and I was persistent and had what it took, but it was always a dream,” she said. “It was in a cloud and I didn’t know that a girl from the smallest city in the smallest state could be on live TV one day. I didn’t think it could actually happen. I don’t think people always believe they can achieve their dreams unless they see someone with similar stories.”
For Agonia, it was a fellow Central Falls High alumna whose story inspired her. She said that when she watched Viola Davis win a Screen Actors Guild award, it was her speech that “really hit home for me.” Davis delivered a message to the students of Central Falls – to dream big and dream fierce.
“I almost felt she was looking me in the eyes and saying ‘Theresa, go after your dreams,’” Agonia said. “Here’s this woman in Hollywood paying it forward and connecting with students. To see someone who grew up in tough times achieve a dream but remember to pay it forward, I said ‘Wow, I can do it.’”
Agonia admits that after her third year at the Miss Rhode Island competition, she almost gave up, saying “after three times, it just maybe wasn’t in my plan.”
“But I kept thinking about Viola Davis and how she’s this empowering woman and how she does so much but remembers to pay it forward … If she can do it, I can do it,” she said.
The biggest lesson that Agonia says she’s learned from pageantry is that “it’s not always about walking away with the crown to grow from the experience.” She said that over the years, she has become more well-versed about what’s going on nationally and in Rhode Island, learning about the state to become an Ocean State ambassador.
“Each year, I matured and met new people along the way,” she said. “I enjoyed the journey. It wasn’t just a competition, it was a journey. As long as you walk in and walk out a better person, you’ve won and that’s true whether you’re in competition, a program, a job … It’s about your growth through the journey.”
“Although I didn’t win,” in her first three appearances at the Miss Rhode Island USA competition, “I learned and I had to keep working hard. I’ve always had a great work ethic, which I attribute to my parents, who came to the country looking for opportunity and I remember that in everything I do,” she continued. “I never want to let them down. One of my biggest goals is to make them proud.”
Agonia said that growing up in Central Falls teaches one many things, from the value of a dollar to the value of diversity to the importance of appre- ciating what you have.
“You’ve seen people lose all that in a day. I always have been really focused on that, continuing to give back,” she said. “I try to remember that; and remember that you have to work really hard to get somewhere in life and when you’re on stage and see people supporting you, that’s people cheering for you and believing in you. You’re giving them something to believe in.”
“I wish I could articulate what it means to me but I don’t think I could ever do it justice,” she continued.
“When I go to events in Central Falls and see the smiles, you don’t understand it until you see it in the moment, but it can really brighten someone’s day, especially when they hear the same journey,” Agonia continued. “Being able to share that journey is really empowering, especially as a woman who grew up in an urban community … It’s remarkable.”
Agonia said that through her role as Miss Rhode Island and her full-time job as Deputy Chief of Staff for Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, she has very little time off. But that’s not something about which you’ll hear a complaint. She said that one of the great things about being Miss Rhode Island is that “you get to make it your own.” Having lost her father to cancer when she was 16 years old, Agonia said that cancer research and awareness is important to her. Also, she said she is very passionate about Alzheimer’s education, as her 93-year-old grandmother has the disease. Agonia also said she loves going to events in Central Falls and meeting kids who grew up much the way she did.
Agonia said what fuels her fire is surrounding herself with persistent, ambitious, hard-working people who are constantly striving to do better and be better.
“There’s no shortage of work to be done. I know that from growing up in Central Falls. I don’t mind having no days off because I want to be part of that change,” she said. “One of the reasons I got involved in pageantry and politics is because I wanted to be a part of change. You can’t just sit back and say we deserve better, you have to be part of that change and get to work. That’s what I get to do on a daily basis in my job and as Miss Rhode Island USA.”
Agonia said she sees a lot of synergy in both pageantry and politics, as she said both are about “having an opinion and knowing where you stand, about knowing what’s going on in the world, being civically involved in the process, but also about providing opportunities for people who thought they might not have that opportunity.”
Agonia said the training for the Miss USA competition began right away. She has a team which includes a personal trainer, stylist, and appearance coordinator, and they are all hard at work.
“I’m preparing for that experience. It’s once in a lifetime, I’ll never get to relive the experience,” she said. “It’s not about getting to Miss USA, it’s about enjoying the experience and engaging with fans … I try to enjoy it because I worked so hard to get here, so many believed in me and I want to make them proud.”
“I want to enjoy every moment I have,” she continued. “Losing my dad at 16 taught me that you’re not guaranteed tomorrow, you have to appreciate who you have and what you have and you’ll be in a good place if you do that.”
Original story can be found in the 2/15 edition of the Pawtucket Times.