Brittany Lee Lewis opens up about what life is like competing in beauty pageants, and it isn’t all glitz and glamour. Lewis is a beautiful and intelligent African American model who has won the Miss Delaware and the Miss Black America beauty pageants. She is now studying to obtain her Ph.D. in history, and she is revisiting her love for DJing, but it doesn’t seem like she will be competing in any beauty contests any time soon. Evidently, beauty pageants aren’t always fair, and there has been a historical lack of appreciation for women of color. Lewis recalls an incident where an elderly white woman who had volunteered as an assistant for the pageant organization told Lewis she resembled Aunt Jemima because Lewis wore hair rollers and a scarf during a private rehearsal. Aunt Jemima essentially represents a house slave, and the woman’s comment was blatantly racist. More problems ensued after Lewis brought the lady’s comment to the attention of the pageant officials. They promised Lewis that the lady would be punished because they do not tolerate racism, but Lewis saw the woman present and volunteering for the remainder of pageant week. The lady hadn’t been reprimanded at all.
Lewis explains that not all beauty pageants are the same, and there is a clear distinction when it comes to participating in white or black pageants. First, Miss America and Miss USA are the only beauty pageants nationally televised on major networks. Contestants in these pageants receive a tremendous amount of publicity and sponsorship that isn’t always available in the same way in other pageant systems. Lewis was able to earn about $30,000 in scholarship money from competing in Miss America. That level of scholarship money is not present in other systems.
In Lewis’ opinion, the judges’ panel can make or break the pageant, especially when it comes to fairness. Judges always have biases; they’re human. As a Miss America contestant, you’re interviewed so the judges can get an idea of who the contestants are as people. An interviewer may ask a contestant’s political views during the interview process. Although judges are told to judge the quality of the answer and not the political leaning, this can still prove harmful to the contestant if the judging panel is not diverse in terms of race, political ideology, socioeconomic status, etc. Diversity amongst judges is one of the few ways to eliminate bias in the final judgment. While Lewis enjoyed her time in the Miss America system, she loved competing in Black pageants. She argues that you can be unapologetically Black while you’re a titleholder in a Black pageant system. Moreover, Lewis loved being a national titleholder in a Black system because of the history of Black pageants, especially Miss Black America. Miss Black America was created as a protest because by 1968 there were still no Black state titleholders at Miss America.