It makes sense that everyone was surprised. After all, Kelleen Chea hadn’t told anyone that over Memorial Day weekend she would be running in “The Pageant U.S.,” a new pageant system that is a cross between Miss America and Miss Universe.
Chea chose to keep her bid a secret because she hadn’t ranked in the last pageant she entered—after having invited virtually everyone she knew. But this time around, there was no need to be embarrassed. She became the first Cambodian American to win the Miss California crown in May, before going on to snag the Miss National U.S. 2015 title this past November.
So what compels a science-loving, two-season high school athlete with dreams of becoming a pediatrician to enter the world of pageantry?
“You might say I was forced into it,” Chea jokes. She’d only entered her first pageant in the summer between high school and college at the persistent suggestion of a friend. Unexpectedly, she came in first. But it wasn’t winning that won her over.
“There was this little girl that came running over to congratulate me,” Chea says. The girl’s mother told Chea that her daughter had decided from the very beginning that she would win. “This girl barely knew me, but she believed in me. And that inspired me to really stay on this journey.”
That inspiration isn’t one that Chea has taken lightly. In honor of the one girl who launched her pageant career, Chea has directed her philanthropic efforts to organizations that support programming for children, including the Boys and Girls Club and the Make-A-Wish Foundation. She’s been especially proud of her work as an ambassador at the Academy of Music for the Blind, where her volunteer work has helped students stay confident despite their lack of sight.
On a more personal level, pageantry has given Chea the chance to reflect on her own upbringing and heritage as well. Chea noticed in a 2010 competition that she could count on her fingers the number of Asian American participants. “My parents’ generation was taught to keep a low profile and not make themselves known,” she says. Her parents tried to pass down a similar sentiment to their daughter and were not entirely pleased when she chose to enter the Miss Asia U.S.A. pageant in 2012—but Chea would not be dissuaded.
She feels particularly passionate about getting Asian Americans more exposure when she reflects on her family’s history of suppression in Cambodia: Chea’s mother grew up in the lap of luxury as the daughter of the Cambodian mayor—until the Khmer Rouge assassinated Chea’s grandfather. A few months later, her grandmother passed away due to illness, leaving her mother an orphan at 11 years old. “I just felt like it’s become my responsibility to represent my Cambodian culture and all Asian cultures,” she says.
Chea may have made more headlines in pageantry, but she’s never lost her love for science; she received a college degree in chemistry and has worked as a chemist in skin and oral care. But she’s currently pursuing another field entirely: acting. You’ll want to look out for Chea in the latest installment of Fast and Furious, out this month. She says that being on stage for pageant competitions helped her build her confidence and presence and feel comfortable in her own skin. “I can interact with just about anyone and everyone,” she says—and her confidence shows!