Miss Oklahoma USA Mariah Davis knows all eyes will be on her when she takes the stage at the 2020 Miss USA pageant on Monday.
It’s the reason she’s waited this long to toss her name into the ring for the crown — and how she’s managed to turn her tragedy into triumph following a suicide attempt three years ago.
“If I can change the course of somebody else’s life, then being this vulnerable and maybe sometimes getting emotional or uncomfortable, or even being judged, is all worth it,” Davis, 24, tells PEOPLE.
Her perspective is the result of Davis’ unique — and at times, difficult — experiences, which began with a childhood spent bouncing around Oklahoma with her sister and their single mom in a low-income household.
Though discovering the world of pageantry at age 16 and competing for the first time a year later was a bright spot, Davis says her high school years were spent riddled with anxiety and clinical depression, which only worsened as she headed to college.
As a student at the University of Oklahoma, Davis says she skimped on taking the medication she’d been prescribed to help her mental health struggles because of the associated stigma — a decision that sent her spiraling.
“My depression was like an infection that was never treated, so over the years it just got worse and worse. I didn’t know how to handle it,” she says. “I allowed it to continue to get the better of me, to continue to get swallowed up.”
Though Davis says she’d already put the brakes on her pageantry career to allow herself to grow into the person she considered “the best representation” for Oklahoma and for the country, her depression weighed on that dream, too.
“Every year when I thought, ‘Maybe I’m old enough to partake in [pageants] again,’ my mental health just kind of told me, ‘No, you’re not good enough. You’re not ready,’” she recalls.
Davis says she tried to see the light at the end of the tunnel, telling herself she could revisit her dream of being a pageant queen once she’d overcome her mental health struggles. But still, they persisted.
“During that time, my mental health struggles really, really skyrocketed and led to an event one night that caused me to have an attempt on my life,” she says. “Not that that is a level that people need to get to in order to decide they want better and decide that they want to fight and to heal, but for me, that’s what that led to.”
Her healing began with a week in an in-patient facility, then several weeks with her mom and stepdad as they helped her determine what her next steps might be.
“Something changed in me,” she says. “I decided that that was not going to be the life that I lived and that there were things that I could still experience.”
With a new outlook on life and a drive to help others learn from what she’s been through, Davis now works to break the same stigmas that nearly killed her with Lift Up Your Sister, a community and safe space for women to confide in others who can relate.
“I had wished that I had this community of women back in the day, and right now there’s nothing stopping me from creating it,” she says. “And not just creating it for myself, but making a safe place for all women to come to, to know that they can unload and that they will be supported.”
With her pageantry career now back on track, Davis, who hopes to one day work as an entertainment news host, is set to possibly make history; should she take the crown on Monday, she’ll be the first member of Choctaw Nation to do so.
Though Davis says it’s difficult to claim the title of first Native American Miss USA, as there’s always a chance another winner has Native American heritage and did not say so, for her, claiming her heritage is a no-brainer.
“It’s important for me to identify that,” she says. “It’s important for me to be public and self-identify as Choctaw Nation and Native American because I’m very proud of that beautiful heritage. My whole family is.”
Davis hopes the representation impacts others.
"I want people, especially women who are in the Choctaw Nation, or women who grew up on reservations, to know that they are not limited to whatever circumstances that they have," she says. "I did not grow up on a reservation, but we did grow up in a very poor household. And I overcame those circumstances. We as a family overcame those circumstances, and I want to represent and be an example that anything is achievable.”
The 2020 Miss USA competition airs live from Elvis Presley's Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee on Monday, Nov. 9 from 8 to 10 p.m. ET on FYI.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
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