This story, as told to Rebecca Rovenstine, is from Kamie Crawford, a former Miss Teen USA, now model and current co-host of MTV’s Catfish. Crawford, who has more than 229k followers on Twitter and Instagram, uses her influence to speak about challenges within the Black community and the need for inclusion and diversity in the modeling industry. Here, she shares her experience with racism in the pageant world, her hopes for the future and more.
George Floyd’s death has been very difficult for me. The last time that I took on the emotions I’m feeling now was when Trayvon Martin was murdered. It’s been a while, but for the Black community, it feels like we’re almost desensitized at this point. There is so much violence against our community by the police and racist people. We haven’t become immune, but we are — unfortunately — used to it.
I’ve been dealing with my emotions and responding to this tragedy by educating people. There’s so much information out there, but many don’t take the extra steps to seek it out. It’s not a Black person’s job to teach non-Black people about Black issues or the problems that we face in our community. But people live in their own bubble with their privileges, and it’s easy to stay there. So I’m happy to be leading these conversations through social media and beyond. There are issues I’ve seen through my years in pageants and in the modeling industry that white colleagues have never seen — and it is important to address them.
“I was warned, 'Just keep in mind, Mr. Trump does not like Black people. So if he doesn’t shake your hand or respond well to you, don’t take it personally. But if he does, maybe you’re the type of Black that he likes.'”
I grew up in Potomac, Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C. By the age of 17, I hadn’t really experienced that much blatant racism. There was diversity in my hometown and within my group of friends.
Then, I entered the beauty pageant world.
I signed up for Miss Maryland Teen USA in 2009. Despite not even watching pageants before, with extensive training I ended up winning. I went on to win the national pageant, Miss Teen USA, in 2010. Even with all my hard work, I received hateful comments: I was called fat even after going from a size 6 or 8 to a size 0. I was also called “not Black enough” to be a Black Miss Teen USA, and by others, I was called too Black. These were just some of the many things that my white, naturally thin pageant peers didn’t have to go through.
One of the biggest issues in the pageant world is diversity and representation. Put simply, there is none. I was the first Black Miss Teen USA and Miss Maryland Teen USA in a decade. Even now, there are still eight states that have never had a Black representative compete at the national level. I have been vocal about this lack of diversity despite my pageant training, which told me to always be neutral and politically correct. Now I just say it like it is. I’m straightforward and honest.
“I can still vividly remember feeling him and his friends surrounding me. I felt like I was an animal at the zoo.”
I’m not shy about speaking my truth, even when it involves the president. During my reign in 2010, I attended a Miss Universe pageant. I was told I was going to meet Mr. Donald Trump, who owned the organization at that time. He was there during the swimsuit rehearsal. I was excited to meet him until I was warned, “Just keep in mind, Mr. Trump does not like Black people. So if he doesn’t shake your hand or respond well to you, don’t take it personally. But if he does, maybe you’re the type of Black that he likes. And if that’s the case, then good for you.”
[Editor’s note: Crawford previously detailed her encounter with the current president in a Twitter thread from 2016, a month before his election.]
Having never really dealt with any racism like that before, naturally I was scared shitless. What kind of Black does he like? Was I that type?
While Trump and the friends he had invited watched the girls rehearse, I saw him gawk at one of the blond contestants. You could tell he liked her and wanted her to do well. Then shortly after that, a Black contestant from an African country came out. She looked like a supermodel. Trump completely turned his back to her and faced the back of the room and made a face acting like he was going to vomit. He did not turn around until after she was gone. And this was all right before I was supposed to meet him.
When it was time for me to introduce myself, he immediately said to all his friends, “Look at our new Miss Teen USA. She’s so beautiful.”
I thanked him and maybe said five words to him. He then said, “Look how she talks. She’s so smart.”
At the time, I felt relieved because my boss liked me. I was the type of Black he liked, even though I saw beforehand what happens when you’re not. Looking back on it now, I’m absolutely disgusted with that experience. I can still vividly remember feeling him and his friends surrounding me. I felt like I was an animal at the zoo. It was disgusting being put in this situation at 17 years old.
When my Miss Teen USA reign was over, I transitioned to modeling with Seventeen magazine. I was lucky to enter the industry when curve and body positivity was becoming a trend. JAG, the agency I now work for, was the first of its kind to accept models of all sizes and colors, which was a game changer for the industry as a whole.
I’ve never really had an issue with feeling accepted in the modeling industry like I did in the pageant industry. But there is one issue that I often encounter in modeling: the lack of diversity within the teams that you’re shooting with. At a company or shoot, the creative director, creative teams and hair and makeup artists are often all white. I’ll walk on set and see the people who are in the hair and makeup room, and my stomach drops. I’ve experienced many times where teams don’t know how to work with Black women: I’ve had them make me look awful and even burn my hair. Then I’ll feel defeated and horrible about myself because of the way they made me look, and I just want to go home and cry. What could have been a great nine-hour shoot turns into the worst nine hours of my life, but I’m doing it all in heels and pretending to smile and be happy.
“There aren’t two sides to this situation. There’s only one: Anyone who is racist is trash.”
Because of all this, I challenge the modeling industry to make a positive change and shift toward inclusion. They need to be hiring more Black people. Our voices need to be heard. We need to not only be employed, but we also need to sit at the actual table when big decisions are being made.
Companies across the board are being called out for their lack of representation and diversity. And we’re going to continue. Black Lives Matter has been around since 2013, and this movement is not ending anytime soon.
For individuals wanting to make a difference, my biggest piece of advice to support change is to have tough conversations on race within your household and beyond. Do not mince words. It’s going to be difficult, but at the same time, it’s the right thing to do. Speak up when you see and hear people saying things that you know are racist. There are plenty of rooms that I won’t be in and people that look like me won’t be in, so we need our allies to speak out on our behalf.
All I want is people to not be racist. That’s it. It’s exhausting. And it has to be exhausting to be that hateful. There aren’t two sides to this situation. There’s only one: Anyone who is racist is trash.