If the reigning Mrs. South Carolina invites you to a laid-back breakfast, forgo the baseball cap and pilled-cotton, drawstring pants. Ronnetta Hatcher Griffin’s low-key casual serves as most ladies’ Sunday best. “My mother always told me to never leave the house without my lipstick on. Always put my best foot forward,” she shares, a gleaming smile popping with Chanel Rouge Allure. But before your mind makes the jump to self- absorbed pageant queen, look beyond the bling.
The 50-year-old Eastside mom is the modern- day Southern woman, that unique blend of grit and grace, sass and smarts, beauty and brawn: a mindset refined over generations and engrained at birth. “I think there’s a special ingredient Southern women have,” she explains. “There’s sincerity, sensitivity, a sense of caring. We have a deep sense of history, we’re soldiers, we’re caretakers, we’re fiercely loyal, and we feel an obligation to meet expectations. We behave and conduct ourselves with dignity, and we pick ourselves up and keep going. You don’t let things keep you down. Get over it and move on.”
The 5’7” dynamo started moving down the runway at age eleven for her first pageant. “My mother made my dress on the dining room table, a ruffled party dress for Little Miss Richland County. I was first runner-up, which ended up being my curse for much of my life,” she chuckles. That curse crumbled liked dried rose petals in 1991, when she was crowned Miss South Carolina. “That was one of the best years of my life because of the kids. I traveled the state talking to students about my struggles in school under my platform ‘Be a Winner for Life.’ I had corrective shoes, braces, headgear and a chin-cup growing up. A chin-cup! And I had to wear it to school!” she laughs. “They knew I could relate to the challenges they were facing.”
After 450 appearances, Ronnetta traded her rhinestone crown for a wedding veil and married undercover narcotics officer, Tom Griffin. “She immediately caught my eye, how could she not?” asks the lawman. “But I quickly learned she’s a living example of the cliché, as beautiful on the inside as the outside.” When Tom became a U.S. Secret Service agent, Ronnetta used the hard- earned Southern skill of survival to adapt to life north of the Mason-Dixon. “I had to put a damper on some of that Southerness. They made fun of my accent and personality,” she recalls. “I tried to still be me, but I toned it down because I didn’t want to be a laughing stock. You just can’t walk down the streets of New York smiling at everyone. Growing up in the South, we take outgoing friendliness for granted.”
Like Scarlett O’Hara in need of a dress, Ronnetta wasn’t taking her resources for granted either. She harnessed her spare time and Columbia College art degree to start multiple businesses. While Tom guarded presidents and first ladies, Ronnetta ran a gift shop and raised two young sons, Thomas and Teddy. She describes her drive saying, “My dad was an electrical and instrument technician, and my mom owned a daycare center. They both have incredible work ethics and passed that on to me. They instilled in me if you’re going to do something, do it well.” Her husband elaborates on her high-energy pace. “First and foremost she’s a dedicated mom, but she amazes me. She’s always researching and working on new interests. She can elevate any project to the next level.” One of her businesses jumped several levels when the family returned to the Palmetto State in 2010. She re-branded her handcrafted soy candles under the Carolina Chic logo. Southern Living noticed and featured them twice last year, putting Ronnetta on top of a lucrative product now sold across the region and into Texas.
Whether overseeing a business or home, Ronnetta does so with flair. “My folks did not have a privileged upbringing and worked really hard to give me what I had,” she reflects. “Mom always made sure the house was spotless and beautiful. It rubbed off on me.” The task is daunting now that her boys are teens. “She holds her own,” smiles Tom. “It’s very challenging. It’s not just a household full of men, but a household full of three alpha males.”
Nonetheless, with a trademark can-do attitude, Ronnetta keeps it running while serving out in the community. “Volunteering makes me feel good,” she says. “I think being a Southern woman is putting your faith and family first, caring about others, and doing things that make a difference.”
Like long ago, children still hold her heart. This past Christmas, she rallied neighbors to help Backpack Blessings feed hundreds of students who would have gone hungry over the break without their free school meals. The swim-soccer-track team mom also serves as the face of the Iron Disorders Institute, which is headquartered in Greenville. “Ronnetta is our star, our light in a very dark area where iron is misunderstood,” reveals executive director Cheryl Garrison. “I was impressed how quickly she gained knowledge and applied herself to raise awareness. Her efforts will save lives.”
In fact, Ronnetta’s desire to educate other women is what prompted her step back into high-heels and gown 23 years after last competing for a crown. “I wanted to get the message out about the dangers of low iron. Nobody is talking about it, but nearly half of women have it,” she states with passion. “I was diagnosed with anemia at 16, but I didn’t pay any attention to it until a few years ago when I learned I was one click away from a heart attack.”
She also sits on the Board of Directors for the Miss South Carolina Scholarship Organization. “She exemplifies style and grace that goes beyond the stage,” reveals president and executive director Ashley Byrd. “She has a way of giving back in service day in and day out. She possesses great marketing skills and empowers other women.” Byrd credits Ronnetta with helping South Carolina raise more money for the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals than any other state in the Miss America Organization for the past three years.
Long live the queen? Or long live Southern women? Ronnetta will be the first to tell you pageants only opened doors. Her success and perseverance are rooted in Southern womanhood. “I’m fortunate to have won a few pageants, but I am beyond blessed to have been raised a Southern woman. We take pride
in who we are and that pride does not come from a place of vanity, but from a place of respect: self- respect and respect for others. And most importantly, we do everything from a place of love.” The queen has spoken.