Tampa Bay area resident Leah Roddenberry earned a royal upgrade in June, when she shifted her Miss Tampa crown over to make way for the Miss Florida tiara. The honor caps a two-year cycle of competition preparation and pandemic-era outreach, and begins her countdown to the Miss America scholarship competition in December. She describes her new life as the newest Sunshine State queen in one word: whirlwind.
“I’m still getting used to this; it’s a very unique job,” she says. “I’m on the computer a lot, planning out my year right now, scheduling events and organizations to work with and trying to hit the ground running.”
True to her roots, a Visit Tampa Bay event was Roddenberry’s first official appearance as Miss Florida. She then headed straight to Miami and then to Orlando for royal commitments. That type of stacked calendar characterizes how life will be throughout her reign, during which she hopes to visit every one of Florida’s 67 counties.
“I’ll be promoting the LeadHer initiative and promoting statewide partners through Miss Florida Real Talk, which involves speaking to youth and giving them the tools they need to deal with risky situations,” she says.
It’s a grueling potential schedule, and though the bejeweled Florida headgear barely had time to settle atop Roddenberry’s head before she began planning her reign, Roddenberry is ready. She’s focused on this title so many times; throughout years of pageant competition, as a student at the University of Florida (as Miss University of Florida) and as the longest-reigning Miss Tampa in history.
I’ve done so much work to set myself up for Miss Florida and, hopefully, Miss America,” she says. “People don’t realize the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes. It’s definitely a full-time job.”
The road to the throne hasn’t been easy, or straightforward. As a young woman, Roddenberry was diagnosed with scoliosis and told she wouldn’t be able to dance again. After undergoing spinal fusion surgery at age 17, she worked hard to rehabilitate, eventually earning a spot on the University of Florida’s dance team. Her ability to perform a solo dance as her talent in Miss Florida represents a personal victory and a “Do as I say and as I do” tip she shares for turning dreams into reality: Obstacles will happen; you have to believe you are more than enough.
That was a mantra that kept Roddenberry going throughout the different phases of competition for Miss Florida, which she describes as intense. Each candidate completed a 10-minute personal interview with judges as well as a talent portion. She was required to give a social impact pitch and perform an evening wear section. Events were condensed because of pandemic restraints.
“After two years leading up to this moment, it was such an honor to be on stage with the 32 candidates from all around Florida,” she says.
Roddenberry walked away from Miss Florida with $18,000 in scholarship winnings and an immense feeling of gratitude. Come December, she’ll wear the crown at the Mohegan Sun Resort in Connecticut, where she’ll compete to become Miss America. This year is especially memorable—the 100th Miss America will be named.
“I know a lot of people have stereotypes about pageants,” she says. “A large part of my year of service is educating everyone I can about Miss Florida and what the role means.”
What sets the Miss America system apart from Miss USA, she says, is the lack of a swimwear competition. Instead, Miss America requires that contestants perform a talent. Just as with Miss Tampa and Miss Florida, she plans to perform a dance routine. She’s quick to remind people that this road to the crown isn’t just a “smile and wave” endeavor. It’s all about community service, Roddenberry says, and the impact she can have statewide.
The role is worth deferring her spot at law school for a year, a “once in a lifetime” honor she’s determined to embrace to the fullest. In five years, she says, she hopes to have served as Miss America and made a national mark, graduated with a juris doctorate degree and settled down with a family—ideally in Florida. First, there is work to be done and another crown be sought.
Miss Florida is a victory all its own and so much more than just a crown and a sash. Roddenberry serves as an ambassador and an inspiration. It’s been nearly 30 years since another Miss Tampa won the Miss Florida crown, after all. Tune in to the Miss America competition in December, and you might see Roddenberry go from Miss Florida to Miss America.
She has just enough room atop her head for another crown.