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Berkeley equestrian wins ‘Miss California 2023’ crown in blistering hot Central Valley

Sabrina Lewis waves to the crowd in Visalia after winning the Miss California 2023 title. | Liz Lindqwister/The Standard

Miss Berkeley, Sabrina Lewis, won the coveted Miss California title on Saturday in Visalia, beating out 42 other women from across the state. Along with the Miss America state crown and sash, Lewis took home $20,000 in scholarship money.

It wasn’t the first crown the 26-year-old claimed in recent years: Lewis, a University of California Berkeley alum, previously held the title of Miss California USA in 2021, the Miss America organization’s sister pageant known for its more glamorous tenor. Miss America, by contrast, is often described as a scholarship competition first, with a heavily weighted talent component. 

Lewis’ talent? Horses. 

“I’ll always be a horse girl,” the Olympian hopeful said in the talent portion of the competition, describing how she often struggled to find a home in that rarefied world as a young Black girl. Lewis now runs an equestrian-related nonprofit and recently completed a master’s degree in public administration. 

Miss Berkeley, Sabrina Lewis, performs an original monologue about her love for horses. | Liz Lindqwister/The Standard

Bay Area contestants held their own at the competition. Four of the Top 12 semifinalists represented Northern California cities and counties, including Miss Golden State North and Miss Santa Clara. Miss Northern California, Mahika Valluri, placed third runner-up. 

Miss San Francisco, Monroe Lace, the first transgender woman to compete in Miss California’s 99-year history, also reached the semifinals. Lace received the popular vote, which automatically qualified her for semifinals regardless of her individual scoring. 

“As a trans woman, I never thought I could be part of a sisterhood,” Lace said during the interview round. “But there are 42 girls behind me who support me and love me for who I am. And that is why sisterhood is part of the Miss America organization—because all women deserve to be part of Miss California.” 

READ MORE: Meet Miss San Francisco—the First Trans Woman To Win Miss California?

All 43 Miss California competitors line up at the beginning of the final night ceremony to perform a burlesque-style dance number. | Liz Lindqwister/The Standard

Jazz Hands and a Lot of Sequins

The final night of the competition showcased four rounds of competition for only the Top 12 finalists: onstage interview, fitness, talent/“HERStory” and evening gown. Five further finalists were chosen before a panel of five judges crowned one lucky woman. 

Fitness was a new component this year, introduced by Miss America CEO Robin Fleming, who formerly ran the Miss Florida USA competitions. The women twirled in circles and showcased their muscles in athleisure sets, as host MacKenzie Freed (Miss California 2018) narrated their various health and fitness commitments. 

The usual pageantry reigned: Women in red, blush, champagne-colored and sequin-encrusted gowns floated across the stage, against the humming backdrop of bossa nova classic “The Girl From Ipanema.” That portion, like the fitness and talent components, was worth 20% of their scores. 

Miss San Francisco, Monroe Lace, center in periwinkle, holds hands with fellow semifinalists on stage at the Miss California competition. | Liz Lindqwister/The Standard

The Miss America Organization holds a reputation for being a service and scholarship-forward competition. The state competition really belabored that point, awarding cash prizes to every Top 12 contestant, from $1,000 to $20,000 for the Top 5 finalists.

“I, like a lot of my sisters across the country, am able to pursue a higher education right now only because of the financial impact that the Miss California has had on my life,” said Miss Tulare County, Elizabeth Sartuche, during the live interview round. “I want to be a representative of Miss California, to show there is no orthodox timeline for school—and that this scholarship organization can change lives.” 

Numerous competitors—including Lewis—chose to deliver spoken-word monologues in lieu of traditional talent acts. Branded “HERStory” by the organization, competitors including the winner, runner-up Asha Bhattacharya (Miss Anaheim Hills) and Monroe Lace all performed either original two-minute stories or famous monologues from authors like Maya Angelou.

“Thank you [Robin Fleming] for creating HERStory so women like me have the opportunity to share their non-traditional talents,” Lewis shared on her Instagram story Saturday evening

Lewis will take over the job of Miss California from Catherine Liang, a Bay Area native and financial analyst who previously served as Miss San Francisco. Earlier in the day, the Miss California organization also crowned a new Outstanding Teen, Marlie Wright of San Diego. 

The Miss California organization held the weeklong state competition in the Central Valley city of Visalia for the first time this year. Previous competitions operated out of Fresno. It was a sweltering weekend for a pageant competition: Outdoor temperatures reached a blistering 110 degrees; however, the competition was staged in an indoor convention center.