The Detroit News
DETROIT — Taylor Hale didn’t grow up a pageant girl, but she was crowned Miss Michigan USA in 2021.
Similarly, Hale was never a “Big Brother” fan, but in 2022, she joined the cast of the show and not only won the CBS reality competition, but she pocketed the biggest check — $800,000 before taxes, around $760,000 after — in the show’s 22-year history.
Now as she gets ready to make her next move — she’s looking for a job in the entertainment news field, which will take her away from her hometown of Detroit — Hale is calling upon her resilience, her drive and her ability to make things happen for herself, which is how she achieved her previous milestones.
“It’s interesting navigating this new space that I didn’t think I’d be thrust into so quickly,” says Hale, sipping a lunchtime latte at Commonwealth in Birmingham earlier this summer. “There’s a lot of doubt and fear, naturally. But I need to tell myself, ‘just put your head to it.’
“Because I’ve done it twice over,” she says, her signature huge smile creeping across her face. “So why not do it again?”
‘A fun summer’
Last summer at this time, Hale could be seen on TV three times a week, her hand buried inside a bag of Lay’s potato chips.
On “Big Brother,” the series you’re either obsessed with or don’t know still exists — there’s no in-between, and no such thing as a casual “Big Brother” viewer — Hale became a fan favorite, largely because of the hell she was put through on the show.
“Big Brother,” which has been on the air since 2000, is a summertime reality competition series where a group of strangers move into a house on the CBS studio lot in L.A. and has their lives taped 24 hours a day, footage of which is cut into three weekly prime-time television episodes. (It’s broadcast 24/7 online.) Competitions for power are held among the contestants, and every week a houseguest is voted out until at the end, one remains and wins a grand prize, $750,000 in the case of last season (up from $500,000 in previous years).
Hale, 28, was recruited by a casting agent to be on the show in early 2022. Initially she was contacted about “The Amazing Race,” but Hale inquired about “Big Brother” instead, even though at the time her knowledge of the show was ancillary at best.
“‘Big Brother’ never came into my world unless something involving race was happening, good or bad,” says Hale. That included the “Big Brother’s” Season 23 “Cookout” clique, where a group of Black contestants formed an alliance and dominated the house.
“I heard about it on TikTok, and I was like, ‘ooh, the Black people are getting together, let me go watch this!'” she says. She watched until the alliance made up the final six members of the house, guaranteeing the show’s first Black winner, and she then bowed out. “I didn’t want to watch them turn on each other,” she says.
After going through the “Big Brother” casting process for several months and undergoing a crash course in the show’s history — “there was a lot of Redditing,” she says — Hale was ready for the show, or so she thought. She remembers thinking it sounded like a fun opportunity to spend the summer playing a game.
“Sounds like a crazy summer, a fun time,” she says of her mentality heading into the show. “You go into this knowing it’s a game. This isn’t a love or a dating show where I’m supposed to be forthright and honest and put everything out there. This is a competition, and at the end I expected everyone to be able to say, ‘good game, what a crazy experience, let’s all go get drinks now.’
“And then,” she says, “I entered the house.”
Becoming a symbol
To her surprise, Hale was almost immediately labeled as the bad guy among her fellow houseguests. She was nominated for eviction three out of the first four weeks and her days on the show seemed numbered, much to her surprise.
“You don’t expect to become a villain,” she says. “I love reality TV, period, and who doesn’t love a good villain? Not a mean-spirited person, but someone who serves up a little drama. But being a villain in that house when you don’t do anything, it’s very weird. And not knowing how they’re perceiving you is also bizarre.”
Hale was painted as a bully in the house, when in reality, she was the victim of bullying and various microaggressions. Fans, especially Black women and members of the LGBTQ+ community, saw through the subterfuge and rallied around her online, “because they saw a lot of themselves in the bullying experience that I went through,” she says. (Hale’s online supporters proudly call themselves #HaleRaisers.)
Hale proved her resilience in the house, ducking eliminations and winning competitions throughout the summer, triumphing at every turn, usually with a bag of Lay’s not far from arm’s reach.
Her momentum swelled, her fan base grew and she made it to finale night where she competed against two other houseguests for the show’s grand prize. In her closing speech to her fellow houseguests, she argued her gameplay and her role in the house were bigger than herself. “I have bandaged myself together every single time and gotten up and continued to fight, because like so many other women in the world, that is what we have to do to get to the end,” she said.
They sided with her in a landslide 8-1 vote, and on Sept. 25, 2022 — 24 seasons into the show’s run — Hale became the first Black female to be crowned champion of “Big Brother.” She also was the first winner to earn the title of America’s Favorite Houseguest, which carried with it an additional $50,000 in prize money, and she was showered in confetti as she exited the house on finale night, 82 days after entering the house. (Hale’s win made her the fourth “Big Brother” winner from Michigan, following Season 10’s Dan Gheesling, Season 18’s Nicole Franzel and Season 23’s Xavier Prather.)
She knew her win was symbolic, and in the same way she connected to reality TV personalities in the past — from “America’s Next Top Model” to “RuPaul’s Drag Race” — she knew she was now a symbol for others.
“To see how those shows impacted my life directly, now I know what I, as a Black woman winning a reality show, meant for a lot of other people,” she says.
Her victory propelled her into the top tier of “Big Brother” royalty, says former “Big Brother” winner Rachel Reilly.
“She’s the epitome of female empowerment,” says Reilly, who won “Big Brother’s”s 13th season, in 2011. “Her story is such a great story and such a Cinderella story. She fought against all the odds, everyone was trying to get rid of her, and I think her story is going to be retold over and over again.”
A born star
Hale was born and raised in Detroit’s University District, the only child of two Cass Technical High School grads.
From an early age, she was bubbly, energetic and full of life, says her mother, Jeannette Dickens Hale.
“Her spirit is still the same,” says Dickens Hale. “She’s always been open and welcoming, fun-loving and sweet.”
At age 4 she was enrolled at Detroit Country Day, where she remained through high school.
At Country Day, Hale participated in theater, choir, volleyball, field hockey, cheerleading, golf, tennis and more. “I was overinvolved in everything,” she says.
She was president of the diversity club and a member of the diversity council, although her student council bids — her slogan was “vote for Hale, she won’t fail” — were unsuccessful, she says. She thought her student newspaper was outdated, so along with a friend she started Sting Media, an online version of the paper, which included class schedules, lunch menus and more. It still exists today.
She was a solid B student and a social floater, she says, cool with everybody. Although she had an active social life, she considers herself an introvert, just as happy on her own as she is with groups of people.
After high school, Hale moved to Washington, D.C., and studied at George Washington University, where she majored in organizational sciences. After college she became a personal stylist, and the pageant world caught her eye after Steve Harvey famously announced the wrong winner of the Miss Universe pageant in 2015.
She had no experience in pageants but wanted to give them a try. She trained for nine months and competed in the Miss District of Columbia USA 2017 pageant and placed in the top 15; the winner went on to win Miss USA. That was encouraging, she says, and in 2019 she competed for the title of Miss Michigan USA, coming in second place. In 2021, she returned and won the title of Miss Michigan USA, and went on to win the Miss Congeniality title in the national Miss USA competition.
She used her crown as a steppingstone to other things, not a final destination.
“I loved being Miss Michigan USA,” she says. “I just knew that being the queen of the state of Michigan was not all I had to offer.”
The next step
Winning “Big Brother” was a major victory for Hale — emotionally, yes, but financially as well.
“It’s nice to have that bank account behind it,” says Hale, who invested most of her money but splurged and bought herself a Ford Mustang Mach-E — not to mention front row Beyoncé tickets — with her winnings. “This is not only something that I accomplished, but I can walk away from it if I want to.”
Hale’s win granted her the financial freedom to not get caught in the churn that so many reality TV stars face once their seasons are over and it’s time to move on.
“This is no shade, but I think a lot of reality stars get caught in the trap of needing to keep doing other reality shows to keep influencer deals going, or to stay relevant,” she says. “There’s a new batch of us every single year, so what do you do to maintain relevancy, what do you do to establish yourself? A lot of people have to network in the reality star community to remain relevant, and it’s not a bad thing. If I didn’t win, I’d be doing the same thing. But I have, literally, the capital to be able to walk away and do anything else that I want to do, and that feels good.”
She’s spent most of the last year traveling — “my apartment is the Delta Lounge more than anything else,” she says. “I live in Birmingham, but do I really?” — and the longest she’s been home for any one stretch in the last year was two and a half weeks.
She attended the Grammy Awards, interviewed Gretchen Whitmer about the overturning of Roe v. Wade and reproductive rights, endured a public breakup with her “Big Brother” castmate Joseph Abdin (they’re really good friends, she says) and is now looking toward a move to L.A. to find her dream job in the entertainment news field.
She’s handled her transition out of “Big Brother” quite well, her mother says.
“I think she has navigated coming out of the house into her new reality celeb status with such grace, such calm, such ease, such awareness,” says Dickens Hale, who has collected a scrapbook of all of her daughter’s press clippings over the last year. “She has a power that affects people, and her fandom, and our family, and she’s aware of all of that. She embraces and uplifts people.”
Reilly, the former “Big Brother” winner, thinks Hale will ultimately find success in the entertainment news field.
“For her, I don’t see very many obstacles,” she says. “She’s beautiful, she’s good on camera, she’s engaging, she’s vivacious, and these are all things we love in reporters, especially entertainment reporters. She’s one of those people that can draw you in. You want someone you can relate to on television and you want someone who, when they’re telling a story, that you feel like you’re talking with your friend. And she’s that person.”
A new season of “Big Brother” launched last week, and Hale is happy to be watching from afar, a big bag of Lay’s at her side.
As for what lies ahead, she’s not yet sure. But she can’t wait to make it happen.
©2023 www.detroitnews.com. Visit at detroitnews.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.