Leah Thomas’ collection of childhood mementos includes exactly zero sashes. Though she has gone on to pose as a model, the trophies she chased in her adolescence required birdies, not evening wear.
Thomas, 25, grew up in York, the daughter of a golf pro, and she followed his lead even as her mom (and dad) tried, repeatedly, to get her to enter beauty pageants. Nada.
“So now that we didn’t have anything to do with this, she got herself in one,” said Bill Thomas, her dad.
What her parents couldn’t do, an Instagram ad featuring a woman named Baian Taleb did. In the post, children surrounded Taleb, a U.S. citizen of Syrian origin, as she wore the sash she won the past two consecutive years — Miss Arab USA.
On Jan. 21, Thomas will be one of 20 contestants competing for the title in Chandler, Arizona.
“When I saw ‘Arab’ and ‘USA’ in the same sentence, that immediately caught my eye,” she said. “I said, ‘Hey, that’s me.’”
One of her great-grandparents, her father’s grandfather, came to the U.S. from Lebanon. At Ellis Island, Bill Thomas said, his grandfather changed his last name from Howayek to Thomas and settled in Pennsylvania.
Bill Thomas never met his dad’s grandparents, and his knowledge about his family’s Lebanese roots was limited to little more than the previous paragraph’s information, but he said his daughter always hung onto that thread of family history.
“She’s always been interested in that part,” he said. “When she texts, she always puts the Lebanese flag in there.”
Between that distant connection and the sight of Taleb volunteering with a group of children, Leah Thomas was convinced to fill out a registration form for the 2018 Miss Arab USA pageant last fall.
“This one spoke to me,” she said.
The Miss Arab USA pageant, according to the nonprofit that produces it, began in 2010 as a charitable event meant to highlight women of Arabic descent. Billed as a nonpolitical event that celebrates the heritage of its contestants, Miss Arab USA eschews some of the typical pageant fare — there’s no swimsuit competition out of respect for some of its contestants’ religious beliefs, for instance — in favor of a focus on “personality, skills, knowledge, education and community involvement,” according to the pageant’s FAQ page.
“The pageant redefines the image of the Arab woman as a leader and a vital partner in the development of The Middle East and the world,” the Arab American Festival Organization wrote about the event.
“It’s not all about beauty and what you’re wearing and what your body has to offer,” Leah Thomas said. “It’s about what’s inside.”
Neither she nor her parents had the highest hopes about her advancing. She had to fill out a request for a special exemption, as the pageant rules state that contestants must have a parent or grandparent of Arab origin.
Not only did pageant officials grant her exemption, they also called to tell her she was one of the 100 finalists who would be interviewed for a spot in the pageant.
During a phone interview with pageant officials, Leah Thomas said she was asked an array of questions, about everything from her Lebanese background to who the president of Egypt and king of Jordan are.
Leah Thomas didn’t know much about either, but she told them she was using this opportunity to explore that part of her heritage.
“I’m very excited to learn,” she said. “One of the past queens asked us what we were most excited about. That was my answer, to learn.”
Last month, she found out she was invited to the pageant.
“I know, it’s crazy!” she said.
Since then, she’s split her hours raising money for the Miss Arab USA charity and researching the Middle East, and her family’s background. Bill Thomas said he’s reached out to an uncle in Pennsylvania in an effort to learn more about his grandfather. Leah said she’s peppered another pageant contestant with more direct ties to Lebanon with questions about what it’s like there. Fundraising, she said, has gone well, with businesses in both York and Lincoln offering financial support after she explains the pageant to them.
She’s also seeking support in an online vote, the winner of which automatically advances to the final five contestants. To vote, you must donate a minimum of $10 to the pageant producers at vote.missarab.org.
The winner of the Miss Arab USA pageant has, in past years, toured refugee camps, along with making more-traditional pageant-winning personal appearances. Leah Thomas said that, if she were to win, she would want to spend her year bridging cultural gaps, the way she has for herself since she first learned about the pageant.
“I just want to let my hometown know I’m out here nationally, doing my best to bring home the crown and put a good name out there for York and Nebraska, for Lincoln and Omaha,” she said. “I know that if I do win the crown, I’m going to do great things with it and make everyone proud.”