Editor’s Note: Roxanne Jones, a founding editor of ESPN Magazine and former vice president at ESPN, has been a producer, reporter and editor at the New York Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Jones is co-author of “Say it Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete.” She talks politics, sports and culture weekly on Philadelphia’s 900AM WURD. The views expressed here are solely hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
Beauty pageants are beastly.
Just ask any woman – offstage and out of earshot, that is – who’s ever entered one. You won’t hear any of that “I’m-just-so-happy-to-be-here” nonsense. Or see tears of joy and hugs for the woman who just beat them to win the crown. Not happening.
I should know after surviving, and sometimes winning, titles in the teen pageant circuit around New England. My mother’s idea, not mine.
A single mother with three children to raise and a mortgage to pay, she’d enter me in any contest that mentioned the words “scholarship” and “money.” I even waltzed my way through a debutante cotillion one year, though I admit that experience was a lot more fun. Anything beat prancing around stage in a swimsuit. Even back in the 1980s, I knew my looks should have little do with whether I went to college.
But still, I persisted.
To this day I remain completely embarrassed by one pageant performance, recalling how I dragged my easel on stage and pretended to paint my latest masterpiece. The talent competition was always my problem – painting and writing were my best talents. Still are.
So while every other girl was gracefully tumbling, singing or performing pliés on stage like a prima ballerina, I was sitting on a stool imitating Picasso, or reciting a scene from Ntozake Shange’s acclaimed play “Colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf.” No matter that I was always the only “colored girl” on stage performing in front of a mostly-white audience. I hoped my unique talents would be rewarded. But I was also realistic. I focused on academics and didn’t take the pageant life too seriously. Clearly, I wasn’t going to paint my way to the Miss America title, or even to college.
So when I see a women like 26-year-old Miss South Africa Zozibini Tunzi, who became the country’s first black woman to win the Miss Universe crown Sunday night, I understand that her journey took much more than fake smiles and socially-conscious comments.
Zozi, as South Africans proudly call her, was raised by parents who are educators. She is a member of the Xhosa tribe and seems to understand the impact her wearing the crown can have on others. “I stand for the education of the South African youth, for equality and representation. As a Miss South Africa, I cannot wait to make a contribution to those important social causes,” she told Sowetan Live when she was crowned Miss South Africa.
But Tunzi’s win is significant for other reasons to pageant watchers – and would-be beauty queens who look like me. Black women are now reigning queens in several of the top competitions: Miss USA (Cheslie Kryst), Miss America (Nia Franklin), Miss Teen USA (Kaliegh Garris), and now Miss Universe (Zozibini Tunzi). This would have been impossible for me even to imagine as I paraded across stages trying to stand out back in the 1980s.
Thankfully, gone are the days when only black women who looked like Vanessa Williams, the first black Miss America in 1983, were considered worthy of the crown. Though hugely talented, Williams’s light brown skin, long flowing hair and blue eyes were not representative of the majority of women in the black community. But I won’t lie, my black neighborhood celebrated when Williams won. And we protested when her crown was taken away in what seemed to us a trumped-up sex scandal.
But, deep down I also felt betrayed by Williams’s win, by the colorism of it all. Though back then I had no sophisticated words to describe the discrimination that darker brown people experience in the black community, I still realized that my kinky afro, full lips and milk chocolate skin were a long way away from the Vanessa Williams beauty standard.
Nowadays, I cringe when I think about pageants. Never would I enter my daughter – if I had one – in a beauty contest, because there are now many better ways to instill confidence in young women. And thankfully, we also have better opportunities to earn college scholarships. Still, I’m thrilled to witness colorism waning as representations of black beauty become more inclusive. Today’s beauty queens represent all shades of brown and some walk boldly wearing natural short afros, as did Miss Universe.
Mom was right all along. Maybe she knew the lessons I’d learn.
Those beauty pageants were exactly what this gangly, slightly geeky girl needed back then. Those pageants taught me how to define my beauty and talent on my own terms, despite how others judged me. I learned to hold my head high in life’s big moments.
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So here’s to all the black beauty queens out there of all shapes, sizes and shades, whether you wear a crown, or not. I salute you. I see you. And it’s time for the rest of the world to see you, too.