As I wiped my brow, waiting to practice Q and A, I noticed a group of girls huddled in the wings. The Gigglers, I’d secretly named them. They crowded together during any spare moment, sometimes alternating a member or two. The Gigglers, however, never attempted to rotate me in.
The funny thing about wearing your hair natural when everyone wears hers straight, is the absolute silence. The Gigglers reminded me of it during their daily chats about their pageant night looks: cascading locks, stiff hair sprayed into an up do, extensions, and clip-ins. They reminded me every time their avoidance seemed to say: how are you going to compete against us, with that?
I wrote Crowned in the fall of 2015, when the YA Review Network opened for short story submissions. I wanted to touch on my pageant experience, and racked my brain to figure out what to share first, especially for a teen audience. You see, YARN only accepted YA fiction, and I started pageantry in college. Pageantry had a huge effect on my life, but I had no idea what it would have meant if I’d started a few years earlier.
Around my junior year of high school, I was experimenting with natural hair styles, often a fro, braids, afro puffs, or the like. I didn’t think I was making much of a statement until a boy I was kinda sorta dating took one look at my fro and erupted in laughter. I was immediately embarrassed, but without the vocabulary to express why. I knew that I’d broken some unspoken social rule, that I was humiliated and angry, but that I also should not have been encouraged to feel this way.
And from that consideration came Crowned’s protagonist, Robyn, who competes in her first pageant with a spiraling fro, which is something I admittedly wish I’d also tried during my competition days. I originally wrote this article in 2013, but in honor of Crowned’s publication, I wanted to revisit the stories of fellow contestants who share Robyn’s journey.
Like many pageant hopefuls, Detroit native Alescia Hollowell saw pageantry as an opportunity for personal growth, and to draw needed attention to her platform of reducing childhood obesity. And when Alescia stepped on the national level stage, the former Miss Black Michigan USA wanted to do so wearing her natural hair.
To be frank, this rarely happens in the world of pageantry, where it’s difficult to find a contestant rocking a short style, let alone a natural one. But for Alescia, this move was a no-brainer. “The feedback I received from the competition was extremely positive,” said Alescia. “The comments ranged from ‘Your natural hair really made you stand out’ to ‘I appreciate that you are comfortable competing in your natural hair.’”
Many black women know that wearing their hair in its natural state can be viewed as a political statement, whether intended or not. “Constructs of beauty can be narrow, and even in acknowledgement, (narrow constructs) can be difficult to break,” said Kimberly Brown, a former contestant and a historian in Washington, D.C.
“Some black women choose to straighten their hair in a competition for functionality, while others are responding to negative generational, cultural, and historic attitudes toward natural hair. For example, coiled hair in its natural state or any other non-altered look might suggest ‘messiness’ or feel ‘undone’ to some contestants, and judges. This precarious image obstacle—involving aesthetic partiality for various groups— can create a deep desire to disguise, taper, or modify natural behavior and art forms to pursue standards that have historically proved more conducive to success in American society— pageants included.”
Jalissa Hills, nee Meredith, found herself weighing her style options when she competed nationally, as she’d always wanted to be a successful contestant. “I remember watching the Miss America, Miss USA, and Miss Universe pageants on television as a little girl,” said the Oswego, Illinois native. “They completely amazed me. These women had such great style, poise and sophistication, and I knew that one day, I would be just like the queen.” When crowned Miss Black Illinois, she found herself in that reality, but a hair maintenance mishap fatefully changed her approach to the national competition.
“On the state level, my hair was relaxed. Halfway into my reign, I applied a “gentle” box relaxer on my hair by myself. After suffering chemical burns and breakage, I pushed my nervousness aside. I cut off all my hair about four months after that disastrous box perm. I left three inches of natural hair.”
Jalissa arrived in the District of Columbia post-Big Chop a few months later. She was thrilled to find another young woman, Miss Black New Jersey, also wearing her hair natural in the competition, but admits to some doubts before hitting the stage. “It was still very short and I contemplated wearing a wig during the pageant. But I said, ‘No. I am beautiful the way I am.’ I thought being natural in the pageant would not only give me confidence about my God-given beauty, but also, it would distinguish me among the other contestants.”
Alescia shared a similar view point. “In the end, it worked out in my favor,” she said. After a stirring talent performance, Alescia rounded out the Top 5 of the 2012 Miss Black USA pageant. “Those who do choose to wear their natural hair provide the judges with an element of diversity. Does this affect scoring? I guess it depends on the judge, pageant system, etc. Natural hair is such a shift from the typical pageant hair. I think my choice to wear my hair in its natural state was a step outside of the box.”
“This is definitely bigger than pageantry,” said Jalissa. “But in the end, hair is just hair.” Both Alescia and Jalissa would love to see more women compete with their natural hair, especially in systems like Miss America and Miss USA. “I think we have to change the pageant hair norm,” said Alescia, “and be bold enough to be fierce, fabulous, and flaunt our hair.”