In October 2010 Blair Griffith stunned the judges of the Miss Colorado USA pageant with her beauty, winning the title. In February 2011 she stunned everyone -- when she admitted in an interview that she was homeless.
The 23-year-old beauty queen and her mother, Bonita Griffith, had been evicted just weeks after her victory. Blair said that when the Sheriff's Department came to her door to move them out, she had no idea how dire her family's financial situation had become.
"I didn't know what to think. It was shocking, and then I saw my mom on her knees crying and begging them, 'Please don't do this to me' and then looking up at me and saying 'I'm so sorry,'" Blair said.
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Before she could process what was happening, the authorities descended on Blair's home and began packing her belongings into garbage bags. "The only thing I had time to grab was my crown and my sash," Blair said.
The experience was in stark contrast to the way Blair's life began. Growing up in a middle-class suburb of Denver, her family lived comfortably. Blair's father, Gary Griffith, was an executive at the pharmaceutical company Merck while her mother stayed home with Blair and her brother, David. It was Gary Griffith who first encouraged Blair to pursue beauty pageants.
"When I was younger every time Miss USA came on or Miss Teen USA or Miss Universe, my Dad was like, 'Blair, come here, you have to watch this,'" Blair said. But at the age of 14, those special father-daughter moments came to an abrupt end when Gary Griffith was diagnosed with prostate cancer and, within six months, passed away.
Bonita Griffith was left to grapple with her grief -- and the family's finances. "When I started looking at everything we owed -- medical debt, taking care of the home and everything -- I was like, 'Boy this is going to be hard,'" Bonita said.
Bonita eventually sold her home and moved the family into a small rental house. This helped, but the financial trouble continued. Just as things seemed to be getting serious, a welcome distraction arrived in the mail.
"We got a flyer, my mom and I, saying, 'You could be the next Miss Teen USA,' so we looked at each other like, maybe [I] should give it a try," Blair said. After scraping together the entrance fee, Blair competed in her first beauty pageant and, to the surprise of everyone, placed in the top five.
Blair said that along with keeping her focused, pageants were a way to maintain a connection to her father. With money always tight, Blair had to be creative to get the dresses she needed to compete. "We'd go to clearance racks and any store where we could get a deal," she said. "After prom season all those dresses go on sale, so we always shopped for sale items."
In 2006 Blair won her first major title when she was crowned Miss Teen Colorado USA. But just a year later she faced more hardship when her mother suffered a severe heart attack. Several stays in the hospital led to mounting medical bills, then Bonita lost her health insurance.
"The insurance company didn't want to cover me because they said I was a pre-existing condition. I was saddled with a lot of hospital debt and I had to take medications in order to survive, and that was out of pocket. We really were going in a downward spiral," Bonita said.
Number of Homeless Families Up 9 Percent, Studies Say
Any hope Bonita had of finding a job and getting her family's finances back on track vanished as her health deteriorated. Amid all the financial and health struggles, Blair remained committed to her dream of winning Miss Colorado USA and continued to compete in pageants.
Blair said that although she had some sense that money was always getting tighter, Bonita resisted telling her just how desperate the situation had become.
"I wanted to protect Blair and David," Bonita said. "I wanted them to think that everything was just fine. I felt that they had been through way too much seeing Gary with the illness he had."
Eventually Bonita could no longer protect her children from the harsh reality of an eviction notice. "I had let my kids down. I couldn't even think straight. I was there to protect them, and here we were being put out on the street," said Bonita.
Blair scrambled to get a U-Haul truck and moved all of the family's possessions, now in garbage bags, into a storage facility. After weeks of couch-hopping and on the verge of turning to a shelter, Blair and Bonita got some good news. Family friends offered them the use of two guest rooms in their home. For now, thanks to the generosity of friends, Blair and Bonita have a roof over their heads.
After telling the directors of the Miss USA pageant that she had lost her home, Blair made the decision to go public with her story. She has spent the past several months traveling the country speaking about her experience.
"What I've learned is that there are so many in this country, especially families with children, who are unseen, who are doubled up in the homes of friends and family, who are homeless because they don't have a home of their own to go to," she said.
Recent statistics suggest that Blair Griffith's story is not as uncommon as it may seem. According to a 2010 study that looked at 27 major cities across the U.S. -- including Denver, Colo. -- there was a 9 percent increase in homeless families in the last year alone.
Just as she always has, Blair Griffith refuses to give up on her dream. On June 19 she will be in Las Vegas competing alongside 50 other women -- from the 49 other states plus the District of Columbia -- hoping to be crowned the next Miss USA.
"I would love to win, but in another way I feel like I've already won. I've been able to do so much with my title that I never could have imagined when I won back in October," she said.
And despite all the strife of the past year, Blair said that when the winner's name is called, she will not be thinking about her family's financial struggles.
"Miss USA happens on June 19, Father's Day," she said, "and my father will definitely be the number one person on my mind."