Daina Reynolds is shy.
Despite encouragement from a classmate, the lifelong Mattituck resident did not have the confidence to enter the annual Strawberry Queen competition when she was in high school. And speaking to a reporter? Well, that made her nervous. But she’s trying to put herself out there a bit more.
It’s starting to pay off. Ms. Reynolds has made it as a competitor for the title Miss New York USA. For her, it’s not so much about winning as it is about personal growth — although, that doesn’t mean she isn’t gunning for Miss Universe, the title she’d be competing for if she wins Miss New York USA and then Miss USA.
“I think it’s just important to keep putting ourselves in situations that challenge us, even though it’s uncomfortable and scary,” she said.
Ms. Reynolds decided to pursue the title after the pandemic — a period of uncertainty that launched a sort of personal existential crisis.
“Basically, it felt like the world was ending and figuratively it kind of was in a way, but I think I knew that everything was bound to open back up again, and I started to ask myself what I wanted to come back as,” she said.
The 26-year-old started to pursue modeling. She applied to agencies and pageants and a few months later, she found herself a contestant for Miss New York USA.
“The whole initial interest in modeling was more or less, like, I’m just going to go after all the things that I ever had any doubts about and just, you know, try to excel at it and see where that goes,” she added.
She sees it as another facet to her passion for the arts. She took dance lessons for years, she writes frequently — “poetic” entries in a personal journal — and she was interested in theater in high school. But modeling was never the plan, which means she’s “working backwards, in a sense.”
“There’s people that make pageantry, like, their track record, and they plan for it accordingly. They know what they need and they go through and they kind of check it off a list,” she said. “All these questions are being asked of me and I’m sorting through my life to find what makes sense with the answers.”
The pageant has pushed her to become “a more public person,” something she thinks is a “healthy transition” for her, especially after the isolation of the pandemic. She’s more active on social media and she’s seeking donations on GoFundMe and sponsors to fund the competition.
Kait’s Angels, a nonprofit dedicated to helping people with health issues, unemployment or other emergencies, has been a significant sponsor, she said. The organization was founded to honor the memory of Mattituck resident Kaitlyn Doorhy, who died at 20 after she was hit by a car while away at college. Ms. Reynolds attended high school with Ms. Doorhy, who has been “an inspiration” for her when it comes to modeling.
“I remember her always telling me that I should model for Abercrombie & Fitch and apply to ‘America’s Next Top Model,’ ” she recalled. “She also encouraged me to apply for the annual Strawberry Queen competition. At the time I did not have the confidence I do now … but she believed that I would be successful. Now, with the pageant, I see how I am conquering the fears that I had then.”
Ms. Reynolds hasn’t necessarily taken a conventional approach to the pageant, nor has she hired a coach. She’s taking the opportunity to express herself within the parameters of the competition.
“I’m not avoiding their suggestions. But I’m checking in with myself first,” she said.
For example, she opted against purchasing her dresses from a trunk sale at a pre-pageant orientation. Instead, she is working with a Brooklyn-based designer, Imani of Istyles Creations, to create two gowns for the August competition in Monticello, N.Y. — a cocktail dress for the “opening number” and then something formal for the evening gown segment of the competition. The designer, who had reached out on social media about a collaboration, is donating the attire.
“That’s just an example of, like, awesome opportunities that I never really thought that I would find myself in,” she said. “It’s less about me now, the pageant. It’s also her thing, too … It feels like I have a buddy through the whole thing — like she wants to come to the pageant now because it’s a showcase of her design and her work.”
Ms. Reynolds does not plan to compete in future pageants. She said she’s nearing the age limit for the pageant system, so she’s “putting everything out on the line right now.” But whether she wins or not, the end to the competition will not mean an end to Ms. Reynolds’ quest for growth. She plans to go back to school for a master’s degree in perhaps business or communication, two newly discovered interests, or even women’s health.
“The big theme is facing your fears, not letting inner doubts paralyze you and reminding yourself that you can always chase your dreams,” she said.