We all remember when Miss DC and army officer Deshauna Barber won Miss USA last summer. It was a major win for Black girls since Deshauna is African American, but it was also a win for the military since she became the first woman actively serving in the United States military to take the crown. In honor of the Miss USA 2017 pageant, which airs on May 14, we took a closer look at the experience of being Black and competing in pageants by speaking with a former pageant queen.
We spoke with former Miss Black Illinois USA, and former Miss Chicago and Miss Cook County Imani Josey on competing in pageants since college, the microaggressions that Black women experience in the pageant industry and why she wishes had embraced her natural hair on the mainstream stage.
HelloBeautiful: How did you first get started competing in pageants?
Imani Josey: I competed in pageants for seven years and on various levels. I wanted to compete pageants when I was a kid but my mom said no because it was around the time of JonBenét Ramsey [the child pageant queen who was killed in her home in 1996.] When I got to Howard University, I saw that pageants were a big deal on the HBCU circuit. The first pageant I did was the Miss Black and Gold Pageant for the Alphas [Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.] and it continued from there. There was a lot of support to go to the Miss America system from doing the Miss Black and Gold system because a lot of African American contestants who had been Miss Black and Gold went on to compete in the Miss America system. So after doing other pageants at Howard, I switched over to the mainstream pageants. I did the Miss USA system, Miss America system, and the Miss Black USA system last. It was kind of a journey. Every pageant at every level and for every system has its own set of known rules and social rules you have to understand as a competitor to get closer to the crown.
HB: Since you competed in three different major systems, can you speak specifically on your experience in each one?
IJ: The first major system I did was the Miss USA system. I competed in Miss DC USA when I was at Howard. The Miss USA system is more of a modeling system. The winner gets a modeling contract and ends up with different acting coaches but it’s not really a talent involved and because I was very strong in talent [dancing], I wanted to showcase that. I’m originally from Chicago and I came home after college so that’s when I went to the Miss America system and I won Miss Chicago and Miss Cook County. The difference I would say with the America system was they were a little bit kinder to me because I had a specified talent to use. When you think about beauty in African American contestants, I would say that both systems still have a long way to go when it comes to accepting the natural beauty of women of color.
There’s one young lady who competed this year for Miss DC [Cierra Jackson] for the America system and she was one of the first contestants to actually wear her natural hair at the national level. And in the Miss World System a couple of years ago, Miss Jamaica [Sanneta Myrie] wore her hair in locks and that was a huge thing. It’s really interesting that a form of competition that’s supposed to draw in so many girls is having these basic milestones that are still a really big deal because of pageantry being created from mainstream whiteness.
HB: When you competed in the Miss USA and Miss America systems, how was your hair styled?
IJ: In both of the systems, I wore my hair straight. I wish I had worn my hair natural but there’s so much underlying pressure to assimilate. Just your presence is already such a political statement in itself that you don’t know how far you want to push the envelope. Plus, a lot of these girls are really young. That’s why it’s hard to essentially find girls in pageants to really talk about the ins and outs of it. Miss America ages out at 24, and Miss USA at 28. When I won Miss Chicago, they hadn’t had a Black winner in the last twenty years. On the night that I won, they were so amazed to see a Black girl up there and I had so many off-the-wall questions that it was very obvious to me that having a black contestant going for a Miss America crown was something that a very conservative Midwestern market hadn’t seen in a very long time.
HB: Can you tell us about the microaggressions you personally experienced while competing in pageants?
IJ: I won Miss Chicago after dancing over Kanye West’s rap in the song “I Wonder.” Immediately after, I was encouraged to get rid of my rap music and do something Black, but sanitized. I ended up dancing to Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing,” and although I love the song, I hated every second of my change in direction.
Upon entering the Illinois state competition, I was told by a former titleholder to soften my voice. After an Indian contestant shared a story on her family and culture, a director discouraged me from telling stories about ethnic pride. I could share plenty of stories about the microaggressions I experienced while competing, from the many questions of my religious background (‘Are you a Muslim? Are you a Christian?’) from judges and directors, to being asked to change my more muscular tone to a runner’s physique. But despite the obstacles, I wouldn’t trade my pageant experience at all. My hope is to see the next generation of women of color pageant girls winning sparkling crowns for being who they are, appearing how they’d like, and speaking with voices that boom.
HB: Why do you think it’s still so rare to see Black pageant winners?
IJ: You’d be surprised. The pageant world is very small and there are a lot of layers to it. So when you’re wondering why don’t more Black contestants win or women of color win these things, you have to think of the layers that go into it down to judge selection. A lot of times the circuit are picking themselves. The people who are running pageants are picking pageant people, they’re not picking people who you would see in different areas and in a diverse city. I would definitely say that when I won Miss Chicago and when I won Miss Cook County which Chicago is in (I won that the following year), both panels were very diverse. And any mainstream pageant that I did very well in had diverse panels. When the panel was not diverse, you saw less diversity in the winners to be frank about it.
HB: How did you feel when Deshauna won Miss USA last year?
IJ: Honestly the pageant world is very small and the Black pageant world is even smaller so when one of us wins in any system, it’s a win for all us. We get really excited and we’re very supportive of each other. When Deshauna won, my timeline went crazy. It’s very much a supportive community. When you see someone who reflects what you see in the mirror, they are not only successful, but they’re opening doors for you and the contestants coming after. I’m way aged out but even for me, it gives validation for the experience I had. It also makes me feel good because I know the girls who are going to come up after me and her aren’t going to have it as tough. They’re going to be able to enjoy some of the good things that come along with having some of the barriers broken down.
HB: What would be your advice to young women who want to compete in these pageants? Beauty advice and advice in general?
IJ: For girls who are new in the pageant arena, I’d tell them to keep an open mind and just really get ready to work. It’s a different experience, a different form of competition. It’s not like track or field when the person who runs fastest wins or basketball where the team with the most points wins. It’s definitely a subjective form of competition. There’s no other form of competition that’s going to evolve you like pageants do. I learned everything about myself, marketing, communications, interviewing skills, how to put eyelashes on in the back of the cab, everything that honestly prepared me to go to grad school and then in my career now. I learned and got my confidence from pageantry. It’s the only form a competition that’s going to judge you in mind, body and spirit and make you rise to the occasion in every single arena. So I would just tell them to get ready, keep an open mind and don’t falter.
When it comes to the tactical side of pageants, like wearing your natural hair, yes, yes, yes! It’s the one thing that I wish that I would have heard from someone or had the courage to do. The thing that makes one a winner above all other things is authenticity. When you are being your authentic self, that resonates with people and your hair is a part of you. You want to make sure that you are not trying to be anyone else and that you are the person that God made you and you are displaying that to the best of your ability. That will get you as close to the crown as humanly possible.
HB: Can you tell us a little bit about your short story Crowned that’s loosely based on your life?
IJ: Crowned is definitely based on my past three experiences in college but the story is based in high school. A lot of these experiences translate no matter the age range.
I really wanted to write something that touched on these experiences that African American contestants have when they’re competing particularly if they are trying to be their authentic selves one hundred percent. The main character’s name is Robin. She’s 16 years old and she’s sick of having her hair pressed. Pageants are a conservative community and they cater to a white or European standard of beauty. When [Robin] is declaring that she wants to win the pageant with her natural hair, she definitely receives some blowback but she receives some encouragement too.
HB: You also recently self-published your first novel, The Blazing Star. Can you talk a little bit about the process of writing the book and how you got it published, and share an overview of the book and why people should read it?
IJ: started writing the idea for The Blazing Star at a very base level in my head since I was a kid but I became serious about it five years ago. Right after grad school, I couldn’t find a job to save my life. I ended up getting this job that was very underpaid and I was very bored so I was reading a lot more young adult writing. I thought ‘I’m going to try to get this story published.’ It took me about a year to write the story and another year to get the story professionally edited. Then, I started the process of getting it published and my publisher is Wise Ink Creative Publishing based in Minneapolis. The process of getting a book written, edited and published is very taxing in mind, body and spirit. I just want people to know that you can get published even if you are not a writer by trade. If you have a story to tell, make sure that you follow through on your goal. You can get published especially in this day and age, but it definitely was a challenge.
The Blazing Star is available now on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and my website. It is about a young woman named Portia who ends up in Egypt with her twin sister.
It’s very much a sister journey and about sisterhood being in danger as much as this is about mythology. It’s about learning how to make your talents work, and being inclusive of each other in your successes and all the things that you go through when you are girls of a certain age. It’s the first story in a trilogy.