Melissa Bonilla of Patchogue said growing up she struggled with her self-confidence and always told herself that one day she was going “to love herself fully.”
Fast-forward to today, the 27-year-old will be representing her town and Salvadoran women as a state finalist in the Miss New York USA pageant on Aug. 19 and 20. She’s not only competing to empower other women and Latinas, she told GreaterPatchogue, but to become the role model she strived to be for herself.
“I’ve always known that I wanted to do a pageant, I just didn’t feel confident enough. I didn’t feel like I was good enough when I was younger,” Bonilla said. “I’ve always wanted to see a Salvadoran woman on stage. I never saw that ever in my life.”
During her childhood, Bonilla shared with us that she actually felt ashamed of her ethnicity, mostly because of the lack of representation and conversations surrounding Salvadoran people.
The COVID-19 pandemic taught her that life is short, and that she needed to go after her dreams. She applied for the Miss New York USA pageant and didn’t hear back for almost a year due to their offices being closed.
Last March, she got an email inviting her to an interview, where she talked about herself, what she did for a living, her family background, and more.
Although she was incredibly nervous, her family told her what families often tell one another: just be yourself.
Following the interview, she checked her email often before finally getting the news she was going to be an official contestant for the pageant.
And she couldn’t believe it.
Miss New York USA draws in hundreds of women every year to compete for the crown and the winner moves onto the televised Miss USA Pageant — so the stakes are high.
The preparation for the pageant has been a “rollercoaster” for Bonilla.
Her weight has always concerned her, and she describes herself as once being “obsessed” with the scale.
While getting ready for the competition, she realized the number on the scale does not define her and she stopped listening to those telling her to lose weight.
She began doing what makes her feel good mentally and physically, which includes working out and eating healthy, she says.
“As long as I’m a size happy, that’s all that matters to me,” Bonilla said. “Beauty pageants aren’t just about beauty on the outside, it’s about how you are inside and out; you have to be smart, you have to be there for the community, if your heart is beautiful then you are beautiful — it’s empowering and uplifting.”
Her professional coaches, including Lu Sierra, who knows all the in and outs of the pageant world, have helped her with her stage presence and learning how to walk in “six-inch heels.”
Miss USA 2014 Nia Sanchez also gives Bonilla tips in training sessions, and Bonilla credits her for helping her “find herself and giving her the faith she needed.”
Her parents are her biggest supporters and the Patchogue community has had her back throughout the entire process, she emphasized.
Having her hometown behind her and receiving an outpour of supportive messages is what keeps her going.
“This is what I wanted as a little girl. I wanted this role model for me and now I get to be it for other Latina girls or whoever feels underrepresented,” Bonilla said. “As a first-generation girl, I feel that we have so much to offer and once I get on that stage I can’t wait to show that we as Latinas are well-spoken, we are educated, we are beautiful inside and out, we have kind hearts, and we are going to continue to break barriers.”
The competition will be streamed from Resorts World Catskills in Monticello on Aug. 19 and Aug. 20. Check back in with greaterpatchogue.com for updates on a viewing link and more information on how to vote for Bonilla.
Top: Miss New York USA state finalist Melissa Bonilla. Photo courtesy of Bonilla. Photographer Carlos Velez.