Black Pageant Winners Make History, Inspire Arkansas Women

Apple Dennie, the 2019 Miss Sweetheart of Arkansas, was empowered after seeing that the title holders for the national pageant competitions were black women.

When one sophomore saw that Miss Universe 2019 was South African, she was empowered by the success of a black woman as an African herself.

Nyasha Bgoni felt connected to Miss Universe, Zozibini Tunzi of South Africa, because Bgoni was born in Zimbabwe, Africa, and moved to the United States when she was 7, she said.

“You don't see a lot of African women in mainstream media,” Bgoni said. “So then to see that ‘Oh, this is an African woman. This is not just a black woman, this is an African woman,’ and that was honestly really really important.”

For the first time in pageant history, black women held the top four major pageant competition titles in 2019: Miss Teen USA, Miss America, Miss USA and Miss Universe.

The Miss Black and Gold Scholarship Pageant was the first pageant that Bgoni has competed in, and she won the title of 2019-20 Miss Black and Gold on Dec. 7, 2019. The Miss Black and Gold Scholarship Pageant is a scholarship competition that the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Incorporated has presented every year since 1976.

“For young black women, one of the things that we do depend on is the success of other women before us,” Bgoni said. “So that kind of reinstates that idea of ‘Yes, I can also achieve that as well.’”

Former pageant contestant and current judge, Patty Booker, said as a black woman, she needed to work harder to prove herself to the judges when she competed in pageants.

“That pressure is on you because you feel there are certain things the judges may not accept,” Booker said. “There’s a certain standard that they're looking for for appearance.”

Booker said when the four black women were crowned in their respective titles, it was life-changing for her.

“To the African-American community, it meant a lot to us, to see women like myself be crowned,” Booker said. “This is a representation of what America looks like.”

Apple Dennie, the 2019 Miss Sweetheart of Arkansas said it empowered her to see four black winners because they showed her she can do it too, she said.

Dennie was surprised when she won a local title and was ranked as one of the top 10 contestants for Miss Arkansas. But after seeing that the title holders for the national competitions were black women like her, Dennie believed that anything was within reach, she said.

Dr. Tamera Glover, an assistant professor at Arkansas State University, has competed in and judged pageant competitions, she said. The last title she held was Mrs. Arkansas United States 2018.

“(Judges) go off of the way she carries herself, and just being able to connect with the overall vision for that particular system,” Glover said. “So it’s not about her nationality or her color. It is more so on her willingness to serve.”

Miss Heritage 2019 Darian Tisdale thinks this milestone of black women winning major pageants is helping to overcome a stigma that black women cannot win pageants, she said.

“Having somebody to look up to that’s the same skin color or has the same hair, whatever it may be, it’s encouraging to see that,” Tisdale said.

When Dennie was first participating, she was worried about racism but did not encounter any problems, she said.

“I was the only black girl there, and there’s not always gonna be other black girls in the Miss Arkansas prelims,” Dennie said. “No one has ever intentionally singled me out at all, but you feel like the odd one out when you’re the only one in there.”

As of September 2019, the Miss America competition is operating under a new system that determines the winner based off of intellect, talent and not appearance, according to Miss America 2.0.

“Seeing all of these women that look like me being successful in an organization that it’s not the norm, it impacted me to push harder,” Dennie said.

Abby Zimmardi is a staff reporter for the Arkansas Traveler, where she has been a staff reporter since April 2019.

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