Miss Mississippi Laura Lee has plenty of first-hand experience with bullying.
Born with mid facial hypoplasia, her upper face was underdeveloped, while her lower face was over developed.
“My face was very disproportional,” Lee, 23, tells PEOPLE. “I dealt with daily bullying.”
“The physical pain was tremendous with my condition,” she continues. “I had trouble eating and speaking, and there was a lot of pain in my face, but the emotional pain was so much stronger.”
Lee says she couldn’t get through the school day without being teased by a classmate.
“I remember walking through the hallways of my school with people yelling names at me like ‘Horse Face,’ and [asking] ‘Why do you look like that Laura Lee? What’s wrong with your face?’ ” she recalls. “It was something I had to go through everyday – constantly seeing people staring at me and poking at me and laughing at me.”
And there was little hope in sight for the bullying to end.
“I had to wait until my growth plates finished closing, so when I was a little girl, we didn’t know if I was going to be able to have it fixed,” Lee says. “They just put me in braces and said we’ll try to fix it this way, and it was clearly not working.”
At age 18, her face had finally grown to a point where she could have corrective surgery.
“It was a seven-hour surgery, followed by six days with my jaw wired shut,” Lee says. “All after 13 years in braces.”
Lee says she made it through the difficult years with the help of her parents, and a teacher at school who mentored her through the bullying.
“Had I not had the help of my mentor, I could’ve been so mad at what people were doing to me and how much it hurt,” Lee says. “But Miss Fern told me that no matter what I look like, I can do anything I put my mind to.”
“I learned at a young age to focus on inner beauty,” she continues. “I learned to focus more on character and service, because people were looking at the ugliness on the outside, but I wanted people to see the beauty I had on the inside.”
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Now, as she gets ready to compete in the Miss America pageant, Lee is advocating for mentoring.
“My goal is to make a difference on the lives of others,” she says. “And that’s what’s been my focus in this organization, is not focusing on what is on the outside, not focusing on the ugliness, but focusing on spreading a message of positivity and hope that this country really needs to hear and see right now.”
The 2017 Miss America competition airs Sunday, September 11 at 9/8c on ABC.