As many young women across the country are sitting in mock interviews articulating their views on an array of issues, rehearsing their talents to hit flawless marks, and slaving and sweating away in the gym, I’m realizing that this is the first time in five years that I’m not visualizing what it would mean to be a state titleholder…because I was one.
While others are counting the days until they pack their bags for a fun-filled and anxiety-ridden week in Ocean City, New Jersey, I am counting down the days until I can take a nap after waving my first-year residents goodbye after surviving their first year of college. It’s quite odd and admittedly my nostalgia is growing, but now I get to stand on the other side, worry free, and speak to those I was once in the position of many times before.
Throughout my years competing, I learned to dig deep and contemplate my heart’s greatest desires. I learned what it meant to represent something much larger than myself. I learned how to market myself, my experiences, and my skill set to convince a group of strangers that I had the necessary tools for my dream job. I learned how to take care of my body, so much that I could accept myself enough to present my hard-earned work in front of thousands. There is nothing more empowering and liberating than that.
I traveled the state and was touched by the stories of those I met. I learned what it truly meant to raise my voice, even if it quivered, because I felt passionately enough about something. I saw parts of my state and my country that I had never ventured to before, garnering a newfound pride for the place I call home. I gained intangible speaking skills that set me apart from other job candidates. I was able to share my talent with audiences who could be moved by the art form. I watched little ones grow over time because of exposure to the arts. I became an advocate for causes I once knew nothing about. I met lifelong friends and my extended family spans far and wide. Even with all of that, there were and are still some dark days. Here is what I wish I knew about pageants while competing.
I wish I knew they would simultaneously build me up and break me down
When I first started competing, I was unpolished, starry-eyed, and quiet. As I continued competing, I was still not nor ever will be polished, but I gained a sense of self-esteem and confidence that I keep in my back pocket as a reminder of the power of hard work and learning to love yourself. Pageants built me up. To answer those on-the-fly questions in a pressing interview, you have to dig deep. I spent a lot of time reflecting, for the first time, about how I could and would take experiences of adversity to help change the trajectory, or at the least the mindset, of others in their lives. Glamour only goes so far. You only get to wave in so many parades, only model your gown a few times, and only participate in a handful of photo shoots. The nitty gritty of the job lies in the days that you’re rolling around on the ground with kids, taking photos with enthusiastic students until your cheeks become numb, and then advocating for your platform at a huge function. I often rehearsed my speeches on long car rides and wrote speeches on napkins at functions when asked on the fly. All of this is usually done within the span of one day, regardless of whether or not you got home the night before at 3:00am because you were driving back from another day of appearances. Pageants and being a titleholder gives you stamina. Now, you want me to sit in meetings all day? You want me to handle complex roommate situations? You want me to run a professional development meeting even though I have three papers and presentation due? No sweat. Pageants gave me the grit and resilience to keep pushing on way past what I thought I was capable of. I learned to not only reflect, but constantly seek for areas of improvement in my performance, something that is now extremely transferrable to any job or career I may enter.
On the other hand, pageants broke me down. I had people make insensitive remarks about the color of my skin, going as far to call me a racial slur that I had never been called before in my life. I had people call me ugly, untalented, and shine a light on parts of myself that I was already inwardly insecure about. There were times when I was too overweight and times when I was too skinny. Every picture, every word, every movement could be put up for scrutiny. There are still days today that these words haunt and taunt me as I’m looking in the mirror getting ready to go to class. I would always giggle nervously when others would point out these negative comments to me, acting as if I were brushing it off, but in reality, I was asking myself, “If someone said that, could it be true?” I felt like I could never please anyone, but now I realize, I didn’t have to please anyone but myself. You have to look at yourself everyday in the morning, no one else.
When I competed at Miss America, those words became even more loud. My favorite was “If she wears her hair like that, she will be a clapper,” in regards to my natural curls. Recently, I read an article on Huffington Post about natural hair in the workplace. It read, “How would you feel if something you were born with was deemed unacceptable?” For those currently competing, let me remind you that those who sit anonymously behind computer screens are afraid. They are afraid of the power, the intelligence, and beauty you exude because it’s dimming their ability to shine.
For the record, yes, I clapped. I clapped enthusiastically for the other young women who worked so hard to make that top 15. I also clapped loudly for myself and the hard work and dedication that I put into making it on that stage and living out a dream I imagined since I was a young girl. Not every titleholder even makes it to the state pageant, let alone Miss America. I had that chance. I thank my lucky stars every single day that I could be the one to show other young girls that it didn’t matter who came before you, it didn’t matter what you looked like, or where you came from, that a lot of prayer, accompanied by commitment could yield positive results. I clapped for the lifetime dream that came and went. For those competing now, even if you are a “clapper,” I advise you to clap. Clap loudly. Hoot and holler, scream and shout for yourself because you decided to clap on the stage, rather than in the audience out of fear that you wouldn’t be good enough, and that is an accomplishment in and of itself.
I wish I knew to stop wishing
I spent too much time during my years competing following what everyone else was doing. I looked to my left and to my right thinking about what girls had won prelims where and how they placed last year. Let me tell you now, it doesn’t mean a thing. Pageants are subjective. Hard work is key, but each panel of judges have different preferences for how they view a titleholder should be. Don’t get caught up in the stats. Work to be better than yourself. Strive to get one step closer than last year.
The year that I won, I decided to prepare by living my life. Of course there are things I needed to polish here and there, and you know your strengths and your weaknesses going into the pageant. During that year I delved into my internships, gaining real life experience, pushed myself a bit harder in dance team practice, and formed partnerships with local and state-wide community organizations to bring more of my arts programs to those who needed it. I was enjoying and living my life to become a better ME, not a better pageant contestant. I went into Miss New Jersey that year knowing myself, my interests, and my desires for being there better than ever because my head wasn’t lost in pageants, it was lost in becoming the best version that I could possibly present for myself not just for that week, but beyond. I went into each phase of competition thinking, ‘forget it,’ (which can easily be replaced with a nice expletive), but I went on the stage with the mindset that I was going to have a darn good time. I mean, c’mon, how often do you get to spend a week with girlfriends, on the beach, eating good food? THAT is what makes a difference. Once I stopped wishing to be someone else, I finally learned how to show my best self.
I wish I knew I didn’t need a crown to be a queen
This is something that I’m learning now. I thought that after I gave up my title that I would be on this grand journey to find out who I was without the title, but in reality, I felt a void. I felt like I wasn’t important or relevant anymore because I wasn’t a public figure. It wasn’t until last month I was speaking at a film screening for Misty Copeland’s documentary A Ballerina’s Tale about my experiences on how dance was my safe haven, but also how I overcame obstacles with accepting myself, specifically in light of my natural hair. After the panel, a little girl came up to me with wide eyes, asked me to take a selfie with her, and told me that her hair looks just like mine when she doesn’t wear it up. I didn’t have a crown on. I was just Cierra. That was enough for her. In that moment I learned that if I was enough for that little girl, then I sure as heck should be enough for myself. Our role models are not always the one with the fancy titles and the nifty piece of headwear, they’re the ones we can touch, we can see, and those who believe in our abilities, long before we are able to see our own.
You don’t need a crown to be a queen. I’ve seen this. There are thousands of girls across the country who aren’t packing their bags for a state pageant because they didn’t win a local. There are also thousands of girls who are more than qualified to be a state titleholder but never get to reap the benefits of being one. After attending the last local of the Miss New Jersey season, I witnessed how a handful of girls who are all doing incredible things in their communities, are inspiringly talented, and completely well-spoken still not make it to the state pageant. Despite not being awarded titles, they are STILL pressing on and continuing to do what they’ve always done in terms of service and scholarship. THAT is a true queen.
To look defeat in the face and still press on anyway is a cornerstone of queendom and I want you to accept that.