The recent disclosure of damaging and shocking emails between the CEO and some executives of the Miss America Organization discussing, in very disparaging terms, former pageant winners has raised questions concerning the culture of how women are treated and thought of in an organization that advertises itself as a place that empowers young women to pursue their dreams.
My personal experience in beauty pageants is relatively brief and, in full disclosure, I will be competing in my first pageant at the Mrs. Pennsylvania America 2018 Pageant in May. With the current fervor about pageants at the forefront, I have a couple of observations that I would like to share from these recent Miss America revelations and my interactions within the pageant world as a local title holder.
2017 has become a time of reckoning for how women are treated across all industries and the beauty pageant community is not immune from that conversation. Contrary to the narrative of critics, the modern title holder is much more than just a “beauty queen”; she is also an ambassador for important issues of the day, many of which are reflected in the choice of a contestant’s platform. These “queens” are strong, beautiful, talented people whose inner beauty shines brighter than just the skin deep kind of beauty that too many people mistake as being the deciding factor in any pageant.
If you don’t believe me, look at how quickly numerous former Miss Americas demanded the ouster of management upon the release of those emails. One of those women being journalist, and Former Miss America, Gretchen Carlson who stood up to sexual harassment last year at her former employer, Fox News. Her actions, which lead to the firing of several high profile men at her network, helped bring the issue of sexual harassment to the country’s attention. Her courage showed that sexual harassment is not just something that happened in the past, but is still a current concern of modern working women.
As a 43 year old African-American tax attorney, I may not be what is thought of as the typical pageant contestant, but in the last few months, since I was selected as a local title holder, I have found that pageantry was so much more than I could have imagined. I have found the women in my local pageant to be smart, kind, accomplished and much more substantial than the way we have been portrayed in the media. All the women that I have met so far have been amazing, from my state director who is a female military veteran, and my fellow contestants who come from diverse backgrounds, some working on their doctorates, others who are veterans or established professionals like me. We are wives and mothers, so our reasons are varied for why we entered the pageant, but our commitment to our communities is unwavering.
For many people reading this, you might believe that entering a pageant is silly or not a good use of my time or talent, but for me it has meant a great deal. When I was nine years old my family and I lived on the streets for almost a year because of my mother’s struggles with drugs and alcohol, I also experienced homelessness at 15 and at the last time at age 19 before I got my life together and went on to college and law school. I still remember as a child, while growing up suffering from poverty and homelessness, I would watch the Miss America pageant every year and dream about participating. However, when you don’t know where you are going to sleep at night or where your next meal is going to come from a beauty pageant seemed like a dream that would go unfulfilled. So I hit the books and pursued my first love of becoming a lawyer. I am now a successful attorney and advocate for the homeless.
People ask me if I believe pageants are still relevant or if they hurt women by focusing on judging a women’s beauty. Based on my own experiences, I firmly believe that pageants are still relevant and can play an important role in helping young women afford college (they are still the number one provider of college scholarships to young women in the world). Accordingly, they also help these young women become more poised and well-spoken as they find their voice in the world. Besides, as a feminist, I believe that women get to decide for themselves what activities they want to be engaged in and whether you sign up for a pageant or not does not mean that you are not entitled to respect and dignity like anyway else should be. Signing up for a pageant and agreeing to wear a swimsuit, evening gown, and answer questions about current events does not mean that anyone can call me names and disrespect me like what was shown by the Miss America emails. As a woman of color who many times does not always see myself reflected as the standard of beauty in the media, feeling beautiful is an act of rebellion in itself, and representation matters.
My personal pageant platform is related to finding solutions to homelessness and for the last several years I have shared my story of overcoming homelessness around the country, raising awareness about the need for more investment and raising money for organizations as a speaker at their fundraisers. I even created a smartphone app called Donafy so that people in need can use their phones to find nearby social service organizations. So the modern beauty queen does not give the typical vapid answer of “world peace” because she’s out there in the world creating real solutions to issues like ending hunger, helping the homeless or aiding victims of abuse.
This past summer I went to a local family shelter and I encountered a little black girl who just so happened to be celebrating her birthday. The way her face lit-up when she saw me in my sash and crown pin was nothing if not magical. She pointedly asked me if I was a princess and I said “no sweetie, I am a queen, you are a princess.”
With that, she turned to her mother and delightedly exclaimed “Mommy she looks just like me” and turned and threw her arms around my legs in as big of a hug as her little arms could muster. I bent down and told her that I was also homeless when I was a child, but that I was now a lawyer and a beauty queen, and if she worked hard she could become anything she wanted. Her mother looked at me with tears and thanks in her eyes. In that one brief moment, it felt like I had done something important for that little girl, her mother and, even myself.
For many of you reading this all you may see is a sash and crown, but for others it means the beauty of potential and possibility. Why would we want to stop that?