No one is more surprised than Lily Karnes that she is Miss Kenosha.

“I’m not a typical pageant person,” she said when we met for lunch at Kaiser’s. “It was a big surprise when I did it — and that I won.”

The February competition was her first pageant and, ever since, she’s been busy with local events and preparing for the Miss Wisconsin Pageant.

When asked why a “non-pageant person” would try out for Miss Kenosha, Karnes said it’s all about helping other people.

Her platform — “Know the Signs: No Stigma” — refers to her focus on increasing mental health awareness.

This grew out of her own struggles with depression and anxiety.

Karnes, who just graduated from St. Joseph Catholic Academy, said, as a high school freshman, she changed from an outgoing, happy person to someone who felt she had to hide her sadness all the time.

“I stopped hanging out with my friends, and I even stopped dancing for a while,” she said.

Afraid of disappointing her family, she hid her condition for a long time. When she finally talked to her parents, they got her help with a counselor.

“After I was diagnosed with depression, anxiety and ADHD, I chose to run for Miss Kenosha as a way to spread this platform as far as I possibly can,” she said. “I want to help at least one person feel like they’re not alone.”

Making an impact

After Karnes was named Miss Kenosha, she talked with the Kenosha News about her story and motivation to focus on mental health.

“People I know came up to me and said ‘I read your story in the newspaper, and I had no idea you felt that way.’

“It’s so important to know the signs and look out for yourself and your friends,” she said. “I can’t stop depression and anxiety, but my goal is to stop the stigma around it.”

Her favorite part of being Miss Kenosha is visiting with students in local schools.

“I read younger students a story called ‘The Princess and the Fog,’ a book about depression. It’s great to talk with the kids. That makes being Miss Kenosha a thousand times worth it.” In a nod to her casual style, Karnes goes to schools in jeans and sneakers, but she does wear her tiara.

The state pageant

She leaves Sunday for the Miss Wisconsin Pageant in Oshkosh and, to prepare, she’s busy doing mock interviews.

Surprisingly, the judges’ interview — which counts for 25 percent of a contestant’s score — is her favorite part of the competition.

“I’m very conversational,” she said, “and the judges want to see your personality. It’s my favorite part of the competition because the judges get to meet you.”

Her talent is aerial dancing with silks, something I’ve only seen at the Bristol Renaissance Faire.

Karnes started aerial dancing after her ballet teacher suggested she try it.

“It’s a very freeing feeling,” she explained. “It’s like you’re flying, and you never really know what’s going to happen.”

She’s most nervous about walking on a stage wearing high heels — a big change from her usual style.

Karnes will consider her Miss Wisconsin Pageant appearance a success “if I know I did my best at each section of the pageant.”

‘Go for it’

Before becoming Miss Kenosha, Karnes hadn’t really thought about competing in a pageant. Now, she would encourage other women thinking about it.

“I would tell them to go for it, even if you’re not the ‘type’ to enter Miss Kenosha,” she said. “You will make friends, meet a group of strong women and learn about yourself. Do it even if you think you can’t win; just do it.”

But aren’t pageants outdated in 2019?

“When someone tells me pageants are sexist, I tell them to dig a little deeper,” Karnes said. “It’s not just about a crown and a sash; it’s about making a difference in people’s lives.”

Karnes is passionate about “helping people feel confident and comfortable. That’s a great influence for kids. It takes a lot of guts to get up on a stage, and it provides a sense of accomplishment.”

Overall, Karnes said she’s focusing on “being myself and not changing my style or anything else. I’m focused on working hard, making friends and enjoying all of this.”

Now, that’s a beautiful message.

Have a comment? Email Liz at esnyder@kenoshanews.com or call her at 262-656-6271.

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