Some pageant competitors work their entire lives to become the face of their state, but for one UA student and baton twirler, three years of preparation and natural talent was sufficient.
Whitney Williams, a senior, became the first baton twirler to claim the Miss Arkansas title on June 19, and hopes to be the first twirler to become Miss America.
Williams entered her first pageant competition in 2018, competing for the title of Miss University of Arkansas 2019. She did not place, and only earned the Miss Congeniality recognition.
“My first competition made me realize that I had a lot of growth to do, and I practiced my twirling as hard as I could,” Williams said. “I’ve been twirling since I was ten, so it’s just a part of my life, but I needed to work on interviews and stage presence.”
Williams was inspired to enter the competition after one of her friends, Caroline Carothers, became the first baton twirler to win Miss Texas in 2016. Carothers was an inspiration and Williams saw the growth she had endured during her time as Miss Texas and wanted to fill that role, but in a different state, she said.
Williams picked up her first set of batons at a summer camp when she was ten, unaware that the activity would lead her to set records in her mid 20s. The next week, Williams’ family moved to Alabama from Texas and enrolled her in baton twirling classes.
“I don’t know if it was natural talent or I just really liked that I could push myself and learn new things, but I’ve never put my batons down since,” Williams said.
Among other contestants, incoming UAFS freshman Shelby Cook, who won Miss Arkansas Outstanding Teen 2021, competed in the Miss University of Arkansas teen division the year Williams won the Miss University of Arkansas 2020 crown. After Williams won the competition, Cook attended the Miss Arkansas pageant on June 19 to support her.
“She’s really been an incredible mentor so far, and it’s not even been a week, and I’m so blessed to have her as a sister queen and have her to look up to,” Cook said. “She truly is so deserving and she’s going to make Arkansas very, very proud.”
Williams became close with another fellow competitor, Ebony Mitchell, at the Miss University of Arkansas 2019 competition. The girls have remained good friends through the years.
“It was really cool that she was my roommate this year and we kept tying for all the preliminary awards,” Mitchell said. “It was fun to go back to the room at night and talk about our experiences on stage, and I’m very excited for her because I know she’ll be a great Miss Arkansas.”
At the end of the Miss Arkansas competition, Williams and Mitchell were the last two competitors standing. They cheered one another on as they waited for the winner to be announced.
“When they told me that I won talent and that I won interview, it was kind of starting to sink in that this is an opportunity and a possibility that I might win and then the rest of it, I blacked out,” Williams said. “I can’t remember it, but I know it was one of the best moments of my life.”
As part of Miss Arkansas’ service role, Williams will travel to spread awareness about “Heart for the Arts,” a non-profit organization she founded to provide students with opportunities for arts education and enrichment.
“Somebody told me I would never excel in my academics because I had dyslexia,” Williams said. “And so, through the years, I became more confident through the arts.”
Growing up, Williams made it her mission to learn multiple instruments, in addition to mastering baton twirling. She has even painted murals in Fayetteville, despite academic shaming from her peers because of her dyslexia.
“It’s just been a self-expression outlet for me and I gained that confidence, and because the arts are so subjective, I knew that I really couldn’t fail in them,” she said.
Williams has been to 15 Arkansas counties since becoming Miss University of Arkansas, and she hopes to visit all 60 remaining counties during her reign as Miss Arkansas. Her goal is to bring her “Heart for the Arts” program to as many organizations and school districts as possible, she said.
Williams said she also hopes to represent the state of Arkansas and the UofA as a hardworking student and twirler when she competes for Miss America this December.
“I’ve had so many people over the years, my dad and my baton twirling,” Williams said. “People that have made my costumes and have helped me in that way. My mom, who has sewn for 51 hours on my costume for this year. And then just the University of Arkansas. Being on this campus, I wouldn’t be Miss Arkansas without the UofA.”