As she wraps up her reign as Miss Missouri, St. Louisan Hayley Leach reflects on family, school, and her work in autism awareness. Her community service initiative, “See the Able, Not the Label,” aims to foster acceptance and inclusion.

The reigning Miss Missouri, Hayley Leach, has been on a whirlwind of adventure representing the state in the Miss America pageant and spreading a message of hope and support through her autism awareness initiatives.
Photo courtesy of Devine Studios.

Interview by Pam Clifton

The reigning Miss Missouri, Hayley Leach, a St. Louisan and Washington University law student, has been on a whirlwind of adventure representing the state in the Miss America pageant and spreading a message of hope and support through her autism awareness initiatives. 

Q: Why did you pursue the Miss Missouri crown? 

A: I dreamed of becoming Miss America when I was little. When I chose to study law, I realized I needed help paying for school. My success in pageants has helped provide valuable scholarship money. 

Q: Why did you choose clogging as your talent for the pageant? 

A: My MawMaw Jan did simple little dance steps. It intrigued me, so she taught me how to clog. I’ve loved it since then. I honored my grandmother’s memory by clogging and performing a monologue when I won the Miss Missouri crown last June. My grandmother always believed in me and my ability. She would have loved to see me win Miss Missouri. 

Q: What did you learn from the Miss America pageant?

A: It was an unforgettable experience that taught me the value of perseverance, friendship, and staying true to my values. Forming strong bonds with fellow contestants provided invaluable support and enriched my journey. I was also able to amplify my advocacy efforts for autism awareness and make a meaningful impact. 

Q: How do you balance daily life with Miss Missouri duties?

A: Some days are more challenging than others. I try to balance my duties with being a full-time law student by traveling on certain days.

I’m also active with my community service initiative, “See the Able, Not the Label,” where I focus on autism awareness and acceptance. This stems from my brother Matthew’s experience with autism. I became an advocate for him over 20 years ago to increase awareness, acceptance, and inclusion for those on the autism spectrum. I created a support group for siblings of autistic children called Hayley’s Heroes.

My initiative has evolved to include Matthew in making joint public appearances. Our focus shifted from raising awareness to teaching acceptance. We wrote the book See the Able, Not the Label and the children’s book Frankie and Finn and created the podcast Puzzles in Progress to share the message and help others. By sharing our family’s experiences with autism, we’ve helped change attitudes about people who have developmental disabilities.

Q: What did you do before becoming Miss Missouri?

A: I obtained my master’s degree in public affairs while working in Kentucky as an elementary teacher, cheer coach, and debate coach. I completed an internship with Judge John Ross of the US District Court in the Eastern District of Missouri, and I worked as a press intern for Senator Mitch McConnell. 

Q: What’s your next step after retiring your crown? 

A: I’ll complete my law degree with a clear vision of contributing to the nonprofit or public interest sector and focusing on education law and disability issues. Advocating for causes close to my heart has been a significant part of my journey. I’m eager to make a difference with my skills and knowledge. 

Featured image courtesy of Antony Trivet.

Article originally published in the May 2024 issue of Missouri Life.