The Miss USA beauty pageant has been held annually since 1952 to select the United States entrant in the Miss Universe pageant. This year the coveted crown will be given in Baton Rouge on June 8, at what will be by then, the newly renovated River Center.
So far, only three women from Louisiana have ever won the title, and none have gone on to become Miss Universe, but that doesn’t mean that Louisiana women haven’t made a splash in the pageant organization – three titles is actually the median number of wins among the 32 crown-bearing states.
In all of the years of Miss USA, women-of-color have also been scarce as title-holders. The first Asian American to win was Macel Wilson in 1962; the first Latina was Laura Martinez- Herring in 1985; the first Black was Carole Gist in 1990, who was also first runner-up to Miss Universe that year; and the first Miss USA of Middle-Eastern descent was Rima Fakin in 2010.
Since Gist’s win in 1990, only five more Black women have won the Miss USA title, Kenya Moore (1993), Chelsi Smith (1995), Shauntay Hinton (2002), Rachel Smith (2007) and Crystle Stewart (2008).
The reason there aren’t many winners-of-color is because there aren’t very many women-of-color entering the pageant. Roughly four to five women of color are competing at the state level and of course, to have more at the big pageant, one of them would have to win the state crown.
In some states, that’s not so likely and in other’s, like Louisiana, those victories have only just begun happening within the last 10ears.
In 2005, Louisiana USA awarded the crown for the first time to a Black woman –Candice Stewart.
While Stewart acknowledges that she may inspire other Black girls to compete in pageants, she doesn’t want race to be so much the topic of conversation.
“Beauty breaks all barriers – it’s not defined by skin color,” Stewart said.
“One of the reasons I did it was to inspire other people. I feel like it is a predominately Caucasian-dominated field, so for me to be a person to break the mold that someone can look up to makes me just hope that people look back at my reign as Miss Louisiana and admire that.”
Stewart began competing in 1999 at age 15 at the Miss Louisiana Teen USA pageant, placing first runner up. The following year Stewart won the pageant. Additionally she has also held the titles of Miss Teen Louisiana American Coed (2000) and Miss American Teen (2000).
She competed for Miss Louisiana USA twice, receiving her opportunity to move on to the Miss USA pageant in 2005, while attending Xavier University of Louisiana in pursuit of a speech-language pathology and audiology degree.
Stewart used her platform to help schools in her hometown Metairie and the Greater New Orleans area. “All of my family is in education, so I went in and spoke at a lot of public schools,” she said. “I encouraged the youth in the city that whatever their dreams are, you can accomplish and live them, because mine was Louisiana beauty pageants and I did it.”
And while beauty may be a big portion of pageantry, to combat the beauty vs. brains concept, all Miss USA/Universe organization competitors are required to have an extensive resume that shows some form of education, community work and an already active platform.
“All of the girls typically are educated or enrolled in school and do lots of extra-curricular activities,” Stewart said. “To say that you want to step on stage and have someone judge you, tests your brain power because you’re in an interview, and you not only have to be beautiful, but you also have to be able to express your views on what’s going on in your community and the world.”
Stewart said that to be in a pageant, you have to be very disciplined. She equated discipline to being goal-oriented and that to success.
“I believe that pageant women are very successful,” she said. Post pageantry, Stewart has earned her bachelor’s degree from Xavier,been an NFL cheerleader for the Houston Texans, opened up a small pageant coaching and image consulting business in the Houston area and competed on CBS’ Big Brother 15.
She now works in her field as a pediatric speech therapist assistant.
“My time as Miss Louisiana USA has far exceeded just a year,” Stewart said. “I’ve gotten a lot of opportunities to do a lot of great things.”
Stewart said one of the most exciting things she has gotten to do since being crowned was going to Gabon to work with getting together the Miss Gabon Universe pageant and preparing the first Gabonese to compete at Miss Universe.
While aged out of competing, Stewart said she still has a very close-knit tie to the pageant form.
“I think that a pageant gives a girl a megaphone to give whatever message she has,” Stewart said. “For me, it was believing in the beauty of my dreams to accomplish any goal set. When you get a crown on top of your head, you already have an extra megaphone – people want to listen to you, they want to know your message.”
But Stewart cautions, if you’re not willing to work, then you aren’t going to win. It’s a message that Baton Rouge area pageant coach and reigning Miss Louisiana International also lives by.
For the past two years, regional transportation safety coordinator Ashley Hebert has represented Louisiana as a pageant queen, most recently as Miss Louisiana International 2013.
Hebert’s first pageant was at age 27, when she took the title of Miss Black Louisiana USA. Already aged out of the Miss category, Hebert, now 29, held a platform long before she wore a crown.
She competed in July at the 2013 Miss International Pageant in Chicago with a revamped version of her Miss Black Louisiana USA platform of education. It included a three step process, which was published in USA Today in 2012, to focus on the education of young girls and women.
“Educational achievements for women have ripple effects within the family and across generations, so I focused more on ways to educate and empower young women through the areas I once worked on as Miss Black Louisiana USA 2012,” Hebert said.
Hebert, who ranked in top 15 for the Miss Black USA Pageant, said her Miss International Pageant was nerve-wracking.
“Many of my fellow contestants were career pageant girls with a history of pageants or crowns under their belts, so there was some anxiety there,” Hebert said. “But, once I arrived, I took some time to calm down, get my head on straight and got ready to compete and represent my state.”
While Hebert’s reign ends soon, she plans to continue working toward her education platform and empowering young women. She holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from LSU, is on the advocacy board for the Capital Area Heart Association, is a member of the leadership council for The Cinderella Project and involved with their Leadership Academy to help young ladies get into college. Since being chosen as Miss Louisiana International by way of application and interview process, Hebert is working to bring the actual pageant to Louisiana.
She also intends to continue work with Miss Congeniality Pageant Professionals, the company she started in 2012 to train girls how to win pageants and help queens maximize their reigns using all the knowledge she has gained in her two years as a queen. She said she knows that moreBlack women are going for titles because they have come to her for training.
Hebert said she hasn’t really experienced racism in pageantry, but has had to over-explain the need for a Miss Black Louisiana pageant.
“When people ask me why we need it and why there isn’t a Miss White Louisiana pageant too, I say there is – it’s Miss Louisiana,” Hebert joked.
Hebert’s last appearance as queen was as a dancer at the Big Buddy annual fundraising event, Dancing with Big Buddy in May.
“What I have learned as a queen is what it means to truly be a role model to young women of this state, which is an honor,” Hebert said. “I have learned that you must do more than preach a message these days, you must be the message to others.”
Both Stewart’s and Hebert’s firms not only teach competitors how to win, but how to reign, choose appearances and speak as a queen.
By Leslie D. Rose