Sydni Dion Bennett made history last month by becoming the first black girl to be crowned Miss Illinois Teen USA in the competition’s 34-year history.
In a Chicago Tribune profile published Friday, the 16-year-old dance coach said that this was her second time competing in the show (last year she won second runner-up), but it wasn’t until right before the competition that she found out that no black teen had ever won.
“I found out the night before the final show, actually. It made me want to fight harder and to win for all the black girls around, not just for myself,” she told the outlet. “I didn’t feel less about my ability to win because no black girl had done it; it put a drive in me rather than a doubt.”
After the announcer named the Chicago native as the winner, she remained composed, confident and graceful, as seen in the video above.
“When they said my name, I was like, ‘Whoa! It’s me!’ I wasn’t expecting it, honestly,” she said. “My reaction video isn’t that good because I didn’t know what to do. It set in a couple days after.”
Bennet told the Tribune that after she was crowned, another black contestant was the first person to run up and give her a congratulatory hug.
“There were very few black girls competing,” Bennett said. “We were all close friends and talked about how it had to be the year for one of us to take it. No matter who, we wanted one of us to win.”
Randy Duncan, Bennett’s teacher and chair of the dance department at the Chicago Academy for the Arts, told the Tribune that it was “fantastic” to see her win the title.
“A lot of time, if you don’t see someone who looks like you in any event, you may think, ‘I don’t belong,’” he said. “But [Bennett] had all the confidence in the world to go and compete, and it worked out for her. I’m so happy and thrilled about that. It’s great to break barriers.”
In her first month since being crowned, Bennett has partnered with the Make-A-Wish Foundation and worked with Smile Train to raise funds for children with cleft lip and cleft palate. In an Instagram post, the teen said that she’s looking forward to spending the year as the titleholder.
“I am so honored to say that I am your Miss Illinois Teen USA 2018!🤗,” she wrote. “I am happy to say that I am the first African American to ever win this title. I am very excited for what this year holds for me.”
Read the full profile at the Chicago Tribune.