An unlikely provocateur, Miss Texas, takes on the state’s GOP leaders
June 30, 2023 at 5:02 p.m. EDT
"The day of the school shooting that killed 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Tex., last year, Averie Bishop posted a TikTok video, sobbing. “These things happen all the time and nothing changes,” she said.
In March, she posted about the need for comprehensive sex education and mourned the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the abortion precedent abandoned by the court. In May, she posted videos touting the need for affordable health and reproductive care.
The fact that Bishop has professed her liberal views on race, abortion, immigration, voting, same-sex marriage, school shootings and comprehensive sex education — which Texas public schools don’t require — may not be surprising considering she’s 26.
What is startling is that Bishop has spoken out while competing for, and as, Miss Texas. The perch has normally been occupied by apolitical women, but in Bishop’s case, the pageant queen has used it to push back against the far-right policies supported by Texas’s White male leaders.
Her platform — diversity and inclusion — represents much of what Texas has been outlawing. In June alone, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed laws banning diversity offices and training at state universities, “sexually explicit” books at public schools, drag shows and gender-affirming care for youths.
The first Asian contestant to win the crown in the pageant’s 85 years, Bishop is an avatar for a rapidly diversifying state, one that despite its historic image is now majority minority, a change that is remaking cities, rural areas and political alliances, if not state leadership.
Bishop has done her share of lobbying them. In Austin, she met with Republican leaders to talk about the state’s needs. She pressed North Texas lawmakers against the bill to ban college diversity and inclusion programs, explaining how she had benefited from them.
The measure ultimately passed the Republican-controlled legislature along party lines, but Bishop still felt she made progress.
“To be seen, that’s the first step in making a lot of change,” she said.
For Bishop, being Miss Texas — a year-long role that ends Saturday — not only meant becoming a visual symbol for the state’s newest and least visible residents, but also having her legitimacy constantly challenged despite her rhinestone-studded crown and satiny white sash. Texans tell her they’re surprised she won, or that she can’t be Miss Texas because she’s not blond. Often, she said, older White Texans will ask, “Are you really Miss Texas?”
“It’s the ‘really,’ in that sentence, ‘Are you really Miss Texas?’ like, ‘What do you mean ‘really?’ I’m sitting in front of you!’” Bishop said.
During her visit this month to Fairfield, a small town about 90 miles south of Dallas, a bank officer greeted her with a familiar question: “Where are you from?”
“Born in McKinney,” Bishop said.
“So you really are Texan!” the White woman said.
When it first happened soon after she won, Bishop said, “I was quick to be offended. Like, ‘Excuse me, how dare you? I worked very hard. I won this legitimately. I’m here to serve the state.’”
“After it happened a couple of times I thought to myself, ‘You know why? It’s probably because these people just have not received the opportunity to see someone in this space that looks like me,’” she said.
Texas had a White majority until 2004. Since then, people of color — Latinos in particular — have driven the state’s growth, which has brought diversity not only to cities but to rural areas like Fairfield. Texas’s more than 30 million residents now are 40.2 percent Latino, 39.8 percent White, 11.6 percent Black and 5.1 percent Asian, according to the latest Census Bureau figures. Latino Texans are expected to make up a majority of the state’s population in the decades to come.
As a child, she was the only Asian student in her public school classes in Prosper, near her hometown of McKinney. Her father was a conservative White bus driver, her mother a Filipina maid who had immigrated to the United States after responding to his newspaper ad looking for a wife. Her 24-year-old brother joined the U.S. Army after high school and taught her how to handle a gun.
She attended Dallas’s conservative Southern Methodist University and returned there for law school. She interned at a law firm in New York and for Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) in Washington, but always returned to Texas.
During law school, Bishop accidentally went viral when she posted a funny video of herself studying in the library that was viewed more than 2.7 million times, capitalizing on the pandemic #studytalk trend. She’s since amassed more than 828,000 followers on TikTok, 80,000 on Instagram and 66,500 on her YouTube vlog. She’s been recognized even without her sash and crown, from a late night stop at a supersized Buc-ee’s gas station to the New York subway.
As Miss Texas, she’s traveled more often and farther than her predecessors, about 70,000 miles, speaking in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York, Connecticut, Ohio, Wisconsin and even England. She’s addressed scholars at Oxford and the national Cattle Feeders Association. She has driven more than 45,000 miles across Texas, cycling through seven cars from a pageant sponsor. Along the way, she has met with a Texas that looks more like her than the state’s political leadership.
“She’s a hero,” said Autumn Keiser, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas who tracks Bishop’s posts. “To be representing this so bravely, that is huge.”
Bishop was a reluctant beauty queen, an outlier in the highly-competitive “sash state” whose winners often go on to place at Miss America (Bishop won second runner-up at the national competition, at which she posted videos of herself on TikTok interviewing fellow contestants and dropping her trophy).
Scholarship prize money drew her to pageants, first Miss Lufkin in East Texas, then Miss Carrolton in the Dallas suburbs, Miss Dallas and ultimately, on her third try, Miss Texas. So far, she’s won nearly $90,000, putting a dent in her student debt (she also posts about her support for student loan forgiveness).
She courted controversy from the start. During competitions, she said, pageant moms complained about her posts favoring Planned Parenthood or including Beyoncé songs with curse words.
Bishop beat 46 competitors to win the state crown last year, wowing judges with a solo from “Les Misérables” that channeled her philosophy: “On my own.”
“I was raised to be very independent and not ask for help, to just go on my way and forge that path for myself without leaning on anybody else,” she said during a breakfast in Fairfield.
But as Miss Texas, she said, she’s learned to lean on a network to get things done. Pageant officials, she said, have been true to their promise to support her as she traveled to about 250 schools to discuss diversity and, at most high schools,gender identity.
She had been concerned when, days after she won Miss Texas, she was summoned by executive director Jan Mitchell and other pageant leaders to discuss her platform. Bishop feared the officials would try to restrict her from speaking out, given the state’s political environment.
“The Miss America organization is apolitical,” Mitchell said later, but “Averie was coming from a very political position.”
But at the meeting, Mitchell didn’t question Bishop’s social media. She explained that Bishop’s accounts are considered personal, not a part of Miss Texas. The concern was what Bishop would tell students.
Bishop had already spoken at several schools, and she assured the officials she wasn’t calling students racists, she said, telling them “White people are bad” or “White people treat Black people bad.” She instead taught “the fundamental importance of being kind to people who look different from them,” she said later.
“I’m going to talk about diversity and inclusion,” she said, “but I’m going to do it in my way.”
Mitchell agreed. “Young women, they’re just different now. They’re more outspoken,” she said. “That’s our goal: That we have girls who express themselves.”
During some high school visits, Bishop asked students to raise their hands and share communities they identified with. She said students often mentioned the LGBTQ community.
“They’re going to see a completely different Texas in the next decade compared to the one that we have now,” Bishop said.
At breakfast, she was eating a Texas-shaped waffle. She loves Texas-shaped anything and the state’s rugged individualism, and she wears her new cowboy boots in any setting. She just wants to see the Texas she loves evolve, she said, melding the old with the new.
In her spare time, she serves on the Dallas mayor’s anti-hate advisory council and just finished starring in “Miss Saigon” at Fort Worth’s Casa Mañana with Lou Diamond Phillips, the actor born in the Philippines and raised in Texas.
“Never have I ever seen a person who can multitask and fit so much into a day,” said Jan Estes, one of the volunteers who accompany Miss Texas, known as the Lonestar Ladies. “Name a situation, you can put her in the middle of it. Snake pit? She was acting like she loved it.”
Her first snake pit venture came when the Sweetwater Jaycees visited Austin in February to promote their annual West Texas rattlesnake roundup. As Bishop watched in her crown and sash, they unleashed more than a dozen rattlers on the floor of the Capitol rotunda, then wrangled one for her to hold. She filmed it all, posting videos later on Instagram and TikTok, one captioned, “Another day, another snake at the Texas state Capitol.” The posts got more than 315,000 views.
About a third of the 18 participants in the three-division Miss Freestone County pageant that Bishop emceed at Fairfield High were girls of color, including teen first runner-up, Nevaeh Coaster. Coaster and dozens of other girls showed up the next day at a historic house in Fairfield for the competitors’ annual tea with Miss Texas.
The girls, who ranged from preschoolers to adolescents, sipped punch from teacups and colored princess pictures in crayon as Bishop, wearing an electric blue sundress, presented an abbreviated version of her diversity message.
“I grew up in a really small town, just like Fairfield,” she said. “I didn’t really see anybody who looked like me. … I used to look in the mirror and think that my flat nose and my eyes were really ugly and I would be really shy and embarrassed about my background.”
The girls listened as Bishop explained how she learned to love herself.
“I want you to remind yourself of the importance of growing not only love for yourself and what makes you special, but how to grow others in your community,” she said.
Among the girls was 5-year-old Laney Lehman, who had just won Mini Miss Freestone County. Her mom, Ashley Lehman, remembered how excited the girls in Fairfield were when Bishop won Miss Texas — including her daughter, who is White.
“It gave hope to kids who didn’t think they could be here,” she said.
One of the girls left behind a princess drawing. She’d labeled it, in crayon, “Miss Texas.” It looked a lot like Bishop.
“I love your message,” Brenda Pate, executive director of the chamber of commerce, told Bishop. “And I loved that this group of girls got to hear it.”
The crowd that gathered to watch Bishop parade through Fairfield looked like much of Texas. White cowboys herding longhorn cattle and Latino vaqueros with high-stepping Mexican dancing horses lined up to march through town. Miss Freestone County and Miss Freestone Teen, both blondes, appeared alongside contestants in this year’s pageant who were Black and Latina.
At the start of the parade, Bishop posed next to a cherry red 1951 convertible with the beaming woman who had donated it for her appearance: a gun belt manufacturer who wore earrings with tiny dangling revolvers. Floats lined up nearby, including one from Faith Academy of Freestone, which teaches creationism.
Bishop perched on the back of the convertible as it lurched past Robinson Trading Post’s “Guns, Knives and Ammo” sign and a truck bearing the bumper sticker “Make Texas A Country Again.”
While many only see that version of Texas, she believes young Texans are more open-minded, their views evolving through conversations like those she has had across the state where, polls show, most oppose state lawmakers’ stances defending guns and banning certain school books and most abortions.
“The core root issue when it comes to disrespecting people from different communities and putting down minority communities are people who did not receive an education‚” Bishop said. “ … These people will continue to grow up and act the way that they do when they are not called out for it or they don’t receive the proper tools to have those conversations.”
Her time as Miss Texas may be just the start of her campaign against those now in power. Within the next few years, Bishop hopes to run for a seat in the state legislature. “We are literally pushed to our wits’ end,” she said of young Texans. “We are equipped and ready and just waiting for the time for these individuals to be challenged.”
For now, she is trying to hasten the visibility of a changing state.
A new Miss Texas will be crowned Saturday, from a diverse pool of 58 contestants. Miss Mission Trail sang a mariachi ballad in Spanish. Miss Lewisville teen danced to a Bollywood song from “Slumdog Millionaire.” Miss Park Cities, an Indian American Bishop disciple, sang “Quando m’en vo’” from “La Bohème” and won best rookie talent. Miss Tarrant County, who’s Black, tied for the health and fitness award.
Bishop had held online classes to recruit and train 85 competitors, 13 of whom competed for Miss Texas this year, including a dozen women of color and one who’s gay. She also raised money to cover the $75 entry fee for 15 of them.
“You have to think about the people who come after you,” Bishop said."