The morning of my pageant interview, my mother walked into my bathroom while I brushed my teeth.
“Are you sure you don’t want to put on a dress?” She looked at me all worn and worried like the wrinkles she had just ironed out of my pantsuit.
“Um … yyyes,” I replied. I took the hanger from her hand knowing full well that her doubt tugged on the thread unravelling my resolve. My mother and I had planned my interview outfit for weeks and I had so wanted to wear that suit.
But I just realized that I was about to become a Hillary Clinton.
Not exactly the politician but the woman who gets all the flack for not being any fun and yet somehow isn’t taken seriously enough. “The angry feminist” who might smack you upside the head with her agenda then take it back and try to make you laugh on SNL.
It’s hard to balance the books, the boss and the bitch. And I knew that because something about my blazer told me I was going to toe the trapwire that could throw me into the fire of criticism. I mean what would the judges think of me?
I practiced my smile in the mirror several times until it looked natural. I breathed deeply to avoid the chance of cardiac arrest. If anything, I knew that stoicism wouldn’t pass this test … but maybe heart could.
At 8am that Saturday morning, 13 pageant girls sat in the lobby of the Garden Place Hotel waiting to be called to the interview room located in the basement. If that sounded like the premise of Taken 5 then it’s only fitting that the lounge was modeled after an Italian villa, lavishly garnished with fake potted plants and large golden statues.
There was an older black woman named Janet wearing a blue suit that rivaled mine. She had the thick mane of a lioness and fierce red lips that purred, “Bite me.” Conversely, I was but a penguin. Janet was the head of the judges and I had to make a good impression. So I stared deep into the blue contacts of the woman who would steal me away.
“Oh, and who are you?” she sneered.
“Hi! My name is Adele Jackson-Gibson I graduated from Yale in 2013 and I studied French literature but I lived in Japa—”
“No no no dear. I want to know who you are.”
“Do you have any siblings? Do you like to read…?”
“Oh! I have two sisters … I actually do like to read … and I like working out and playing soccer?”
“Yes. That’s much better. See that’s how you have to present yourself to the judges.”
I sat down realizing that she had flashed her fangs to show me danger. She reminded me I was there to charm, not spit out my resume.
After a few hours of idle chit-chat with the girls, it was time to go. One of the pageant organizers herded us into the basement where there was a small waiting room, a few chairs and a coffee maker. One by one, we were called into the interview room to offer our hearts to the judges. Janet sat guarding the door to make sure we were quiet. She leaned back and puffed on her vape. “Mmm raspberry. Tastes like dessert,” she smiled.
The hours sludged by. I sat on the stairs twiddling my thumbs, talking to myself, fixing my posture when I started to slouch. Then finally I was called in to tell the judges my story. I had ten minutes on the clock.
“Adele, welcome. Stand right in the middle of the floor please.”
The panel featured high-ranking men and women in society: a school principal, a health and fitness guru, a plastic surgeon, a former model agent, an actual law-enforcing judge …
“Adele, tell us, who do you look up to as a role model and why?”
I told them about a woman named Andia Winslow. A fellow Yale alum, Andia was one of the few African American women in the LPGA and she even trained with the USA bobsled team for a bit. Sure she appealed to me because of her sports background, and as a person of color I could identify with her. However, in my mind, she is doing so much more than just existing as a minority in some of the whitest sports of all-time. She has become a prolific fitness professional. She calls herself a “fitness activist.”
At this point, I hadn’t met Andia and I really wanted to know what it meant to be a “fitness activist.” I scoured her site and I found this jazzy video called “The Legacy Workout.” It’s a Black History month tribute featuring famous quotes and moves named after important figures such as Jackie Robinson and Thurdgood Marshall. Andia also produced a series called “The Fit Cycle” where she shows people how you can work out anywhere and anytime to any music, whether you’re waiting for your laundry or hanging on the subway, grooving to mambo. With her cultural flare and social awareness, Andia makes fitness seem more accessible and less about the latest expensive fitness fads.
When I emailed Andia telling her I wanted to be more like her one day she said:
I didn’t set out to have a media presence, I set out to do good work that would benefit the people. That is always how I’ve understood activism. I think you’ll need to decide what your ultimate goals are—money, fame, influence, happiness—it’s a different process for everyone.
And there was my mission: I told the judges that if I was Miss Buffalo and would use my platform to be a fitness activist. And maybe this isn’t in the way that Andia meant it, but I saw a huge hole in the health and fitness industry and I wanted to change that.
Fitness videos and magazines usually feature skinny women and they tend to be white. They focus on the trending fitness gear and expensive equipment. It’s all good and fun to look at, but I know people are inspired when people can see themselves in someone else’s shoes. If obesity is a national crisis and if 38% of the population is overweight, why don’t these media sources target other people? In addition, it’s dangerous to associate “skinny toned girl” as the only definition of healthy. There are larger girls who are much better at yoga than me and can run farther than I can. We need more women embracing their body’s capabilities rather than focusing on just aesthetics. I dreamt of starting a new women’s magazine featuring different body types and cultural identities. If I had the crown I would host grassroots events promoting this message …
The judges got silent for the moment and I could tell it was because I was rambling. I didn’t mean to but it all kind of poured out. One judge was particularly suspicious.
“Adele, why are you even doing this?” She meant the pageant.
“Because I know that these pageants still reflect the standards of what a successful woman is in this country. She’s beautiful, she’s smart, she’s kind and she can walk tall in a dress. Even though I might be different, I want to prove that I can do that.” I meant that because I believed that once I won over their hearts, I could own that platform as myself and give back to the world.
“Okay, thank you Adele. Please let in the next contestant.”
I walked out of that room a little sweaty and little surprised at how passionate I was. I think that was the first time I realized winning was possible, that I could actually do good through Miss America. I didn’t know if I won the judges over, perhaps I didn’t sport enough charm and I probably talked too much about race. I didn’t care. But with the interview behind me, I hung my pantsuit back in my closet and thanked the Clinton spirit that guided me. Now it was time to put on another face and get ready for showtime the next night.← Previous Chapter Next Chapter →