HELENA — Merissa Underwood, from Bridger Creek, graced the stage at Miss USA, representing the state of Montana this week. Asya Branch was crowned Miss USA 2020, who represents the state of Mississippi. Branch will go on to compete in the Miss Universe pageant.
Underwood plans to continue her platform, bringing awareness to animal rights and being an environmental activist. She is a junior at Loyola Marymount University, studying for a BA in Journalism and a Minor in Political Science. She has spent her life horseback riding competitively, which led her to become an animal rights activist and environmentalist.
She is passionate about raising awareness about what she believes is the correlation between factory farming and climate change. In October 2019, Underwood faced backlash on social media after making posts on the Miss Montana USA Instagram page promoting a vegan lifestyle and misinformation about animal agriculture. Click here to read more.
Underwood said being on-stage at Miss USA was unlike any experience before. “There is just something about the Miss USA stage, it’s the most elite, most prestigious pageant stage."
Due to the pandemic, health and safety were priorities among the delegates. “It was stressful, in the beginning before we left, we had to take an at-home-Covid test and they told us, you know if you do test positive, you can’t come, and you're done, essentially. And I get that logically. You know, that’s science, but a lot of us were really afraid of that,” Underwood said.
Jami Forseth of Huntley was crowned Miss Montana USA 2021 on September 27. Forseth watched in the crowd at the pageant. Next year, she will go on to represent Montana on stage. Forseth added that even in the audience, coronavirus precautions were in place. “They checked all of our temperatures as we walked in, and they separated the chairs according to the groups you signed up with, so if you came with your family, you could all be in a group. Miss Idaho and I went together.”
The women were on the edge of their seats as they watched Kim Layne (Miss Idaho USA 2020) and Mississippi's Asya Branch hold hands as the finalists. Branch went on to win the crown. “She (Aysa Branch) exuded everything that Miss USA should be. Her answer, her walk, everything, confidence and intelligence, and obviously gorgeous. And another cool part of that was Idaho USA, which is bordering Montana, was first runner up USA. So the new Miss Idaho USA and I were sitting together and we were losing our minds. It was so cool to watch someone that we are close with getting first-runner-up and be one of the last two standing,” Forseth said.
For Underwood, as she looks back on her tenure as Miss Montana, she said, “The image of a pageant girl is in my eyes is someone who wants to make an actual change in their community, and so a lot of women are really afraid to come out and stand by something that they are really passionate about because it might be controversial. And while I didn’t win, and I didn’t place, I still look at the entire year as a win as a whole, because for me, if I had been any quieter, I wouldn’t have the same results as I have now, where I have people messaging me saying my whole family is vegan, we are going to have a vegan Thanksgiving, or when we watched Miss USA, we had a Vvgan dinner in honor of you.”