Phenomenal, phenomenal, phenomenal.
But the empty seats and the snail’s pace do not dampen the enthusiasm at the Gem Theater, where 23 young women have gathered to pose in swimsuits and heels, stride across a stage like bedazzled Barbies and speak extemporaneously about race, politics and, if not world peace, then at least well-being and uplift. This most adamant celebration of black beauty is held almost a month ahead of the more famous Miss America pageant — the one that will be televised live on ABC but is currently riven by internal strife as it tries to find its feminist footing and existential meaning.
Miss Black America may be struggling to find an audience. It won’t be televised until February, and then only to viewers in a dozen or so markets as part of a Black History Month pop-culture smorgasbord. But neither its participants nor its promoters are grasping for meaning. They know why they are here. For them, the Miss Black America pageant is both affirmation and protest.
“You can be unapologetically black,” says contestant Leslie Maldonado of Washington, D.C. “It’s proper propaganda. It’s about knowing your worth.”
Scenes from inside the Miss Black America 2018 pageant
The morning before the preliminary competition, a small band of TV cameras has assembled at this city's Union Station to capture the contestants on a red carpet in front of a backdrop plastered with sponsors ranging from sundry civic groups to hair-care services and copy centers. They are women, ages 18 to 29, from across the country, though a critical mass call the New York or Washington areas home. They are executives and Ivy League students as well as experienced pageant girls.
The road to Miss Black America does not necessarily pass through a series of local pageants. A woman can also be an at-large contestant or represent a civic organization. There’s no one-state-one-woman rule. And so there is Miss Bronx and Miss Brooklyn, as well as Miss New York City. There is Miss Washington, D.C., and Miss Prince George’s County and Miss Rockville, and there is also Maldonado, who is quite specific in who she represents: Southeast Washington. Ward 8.
“I’m representing marginalized youth who don’t have a microphone in front of them,” she says.
It’s symbolic that the women are competing in a state that last year was slapped with an NAACP travel advisory, owing to a “series of questionable, race-based incidents,” and legislation that would make it more difficult to sue for discrimination. Welcoming the contestants was, city leaders said, a pointed rebuke to the warning — Kansas City hospitality laid bare in a parade of rhinestones and sequins.
There is nothing like a beauty queen. Their eyes sparkle with emotive delight. Their resting expression is one of Crest Whitestrips joy. They greet the public with either the high-stepping prance of a show pony or the slow-motion grace of a swan. Every “hello, my name is . . .” comes with the make-eye-contact, nod-graciously hallmarks of performance.
Miss Black Kansas City has long swingy braids partially swirled high into a pompadour. Miss Albuquerque boasts an ear-to-ear smile and hands that seem permanently affixed to her hips. Miss Minnesota (by way of Liberia) struts forward with her hair in a perky 1950s flip. Some women have the physique of a gazelle while others look as though they live their lives in a hot-yoga studio, forever in chaturanga dandasana. A few have the round hips of a Botero beauty.
They exude a glossy veneer. But to leave it at that would mean succumbing to stereotypes, and that wouldn’t be fair. To be a pageant contestant in the era of third- and fourth-wave feminism means tackling all the preconceived notions about beauty queens. And to participate in Miss Black America in particular means claiming a certain old-school femininity that was long denied to women of color.
“Stop and look at the true meaning of feminism — and it means choice,” says Brittany Lewis, Miss Black America 2017. “I consider myself a feminist, and I love pageants.”
Lewis, a petite, fair-skinned black woman, wears a trim, ivory sheath and long black curls. She was planning to wear an Afro-centric gown and a storm-cloud of an Afro to hand over her crown. In 2015, she represented Delaware at Miss America and does not have anything negative to say about the experience. But as a doctoral student in African American history at George Washington University, she was captivated by this pageant’s history.
It was established in 1968 by Philadelphia businessman J. Morris Anderson in response to his own daughters’ fantasies about winning the Miss America crown when that would have been virtually impossible. By the 1960s, Miss America had dropped its rule stipulating that contestants must be white, but no black women had yet competed.
“Our protest wasn’t just about the lack of inclusion, but black people buying into the propaganda. Many black people had been convinced that black skin was ugly, that curly hair was bad hair,” Anderson says. “There were kids who might have seen their mother pinching their nose so it wouldn’t be broad and would be more European.”
Culturally, the timing felt right. James Brown had just released “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Civil rights activism was in full flower. Naomi Sims was ascendant as perhaps the first African American top model, on the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal that fall.
The inaugural pageant was in Atlantic City, home to Miss America, and in the same year that feminist activists took to the boardwalk to protest the older pageant as demeaning.
For black women, says Lewis, competing in a Miss Black America pageant was their form of protest — an opportunity to celebrate their beauty when the broader culture devalued it.
Its heyday was the black-is-beautiful 1970s, when the show was broadcast live on NBC and a roster of Hollywood celebrities (Curtis Mayfield, Billy Dee Williams, Louis Gossett Jr.) supported it. Oprah Winfrey was Miss Black Tennessee. Athletes hosted parties for the contestants, and politicians gripped-and-grinned in photo-ops.
Jan Reynolds, who represented Missouri in 1976, had watched Miss America as a girl and dreamed about being crowned with a glittering tiara. She looked at Anderson’s pageant as her chance to experience that. It was a way to “prove black women are just as beautiful and intelligent” as their white counterparts, she says.
In 1991, the pageant joined forces with Black Expo in Indianapolis. Boxer Mike Tyson, a guest of the festival, raped contestant Desiree Washington after inviting her to his hotel room. He was sentenced to six years in prison.
The incident set off a national conversation about date rape, race and gender stereotypes, but also sent sponsors fleeing. The pageant was on hiatus for more than a decade, returning in 2009.
Since then, “there has been some progress, changes that have been good,” Anderson says. But “some of the stereotypes put out there by the power structure about black women’s beauty still exist.”
For Lewis, participating in Miss America was culturally lonely. “There’s more inclusion in mainstream pageants, but it’s still like being a raisin in a rice bowl,” she says. And getting to Atlantic City remains a challenge. “You have to win at the state level before you can go on to Miss America,” says Reynolds. “A lot of time [racism is] not letting you win at the state level.”
With Miss Black America, the only obstacles are financial. Pay a $50 registration, line up sponsorships, and a woman of color is free to compete for a glittering sash, a crystal tiara, a Ford Escape, luxury hair extensions, a photo shoot, an artist development deal and a host of other prizes.
Miss America made a statement this year by dropping the swimsuit competition; Miss Black America has made it a featured attraction. Earlier in the week, contestants — thin and plump, muscular and curvy — modeled for a photo shoot wearing Clyopatra Couture swimsuits emblazoned with African prints. Now, they are competing in bright red bikinis and maillots.
“It’s about being proud of one’s skin,” says Anderson, “and proud of oneself.” And the young women back him up on this.
“Telling women to cover up is not more feminist,” Lewis says. “There’s nothing wrong with a woman feeling empowered with less on. To suggest so gets into respectability politics.”
In front of a meager audience of a few dozen people and eight judges, the contestants twirl through the preliminary competition in their swimwear. The bigger the woman, the more exuberant her display of self-confidence: hips swaying, coverups dramatically shed, spins that end in a theatrical full-stop.
Miss Black America aspires to a lot, and often falls short. It aims for pageantry, entertainment and enlightenment. It highlights black women’s physique, their talent, their entrepreneurial desires, their ability to think on their feet — their sisterliness, their positivity, their capacity to smile and smile and smile.
The week of festivities leading up to the main event includes a panel discussion on mass incarceration. But the contestants sit in the audience and listen to eight panelists — all of them men — discuss prison reform, community policing and inequities in the criminal justice system. They listen as the conversation drifts into personal exposition, conspiracy theory and questionable data.
At the end, Lewis, the moderator, cites a 2016 report that found the fastest-growing segment of the prison population is women — yet the contestants were never asked to weigh in. They did not have the opportunity to ask questions. They weren’t asked for their thoughts. But they did have brunch.
The talent portion of any beauty pageant is an uneven playing field. An extraordinary soccer player, photographer or poet is at a disadvantage. The scale is tipped in favor of musicians, singers, spoken-word artists — even pom-pom-waving cheerleaders.
Can the third awkward ode to Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” really compete with DeVaughnn Williams’s assured version of the Puccini aria “O mio babbino caro”? No, it cannot.
There are only a few sure things in pageant-land: If a woman stands before an audience and says she will be performing Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing,” one can be certain that she has not made this decision lightly. And even if she does not nail the power ballad, she will hammer it down pretty good. And in this case, Miss Albuquerque does.
If a contestant chooses “One Night Only” from “Dreamgirls” — the slow, emotional Effie version rather than the breathy disco one — she is a woman who is not to be trifled with. So do not underestimate Ryann Richardson, a tech executive originally from the District but competing for Brooklyn. Wearing a metallic-gold evening gown, she croons slowly, confidently and on-key.
The portion of the pageant when contestants wear evening gowns isn’t called “the evening gown competition” here. It’s the “projection” segment, in which they are asked a single question by longtime host and sportscaster Charlie Neal.
What are your five rules to live by? Love and, um. . . .
What do you want right now? To win!
If you could go back in time and change something, what would it be? Nothing.
Neal turns to Richardson, the final contestant. She is wearing a strapless jet-beaded gown with a five-foot train and a sky-high slit. Her kinky curls are clipped short at the sides and longer on top. Her lashes are thick with mascara; her arms sculpted like a dancer’s. What are her top three agenda items if she wins Miss Black America?
And then, with eloquent efficiency, convincing certitude and boardroom authority, Richardson lays out her plan. It goes something like this:
“First: to bring more black women into the field of technology. Technology is the future and we must be a part of it. Second: to not just help the Miss Black America pageant survive but to see that it thrives by raising awareness and increasing participation. And in the short term: We must vote. We cannot wait until 2020. The midterms are coming. We have to mobilize and vote.”
Richardson smiles and saunters off the stage. She ascends to the top 10. Two nights later, she is crowned Miss Black America 2018 — a beauty queen without apologies.