Next January, instead of winding down after finals, three Mills students will be gearing up for competition in the Miss California USA pageant.
Thalia “Jingles” Moore, 19; Ali Solon, 18; and Tamara Williams, 22; have been chosen by pageant officials to move forward from the initial screening process and will attend the Miss California competition. Along with scholarship money and prizes, the crowned Miss California will then go on to represent the state and compete for the title of Miss USA.
Moore said that the thought of entering a beauty pageant would not have occurred to her if she hadn’t stumbled upon the flyer calling for contestants while searching employment opportunities online.
“I was just on Craigslist looking for a job and it was there,” said Moore, an MFA in creative writing with an emphasis in poetry.
The other two women describe a similar experience of stumbling upon information about the pageant online.
“I figured, ‘Why not?’” said Solon, a first year in the Political, Legal and Economic Analysis program, who will be competing as Miss Alameda County. She had thought about competing in the Miss California USA pageant before and when she realized she was now old enough to enter, she jumped at the chance. That the pageant is owned by Donald Trump, who Solon says was once a family friend, makes entering even
Though Moore is on a leave of absence from Mills, she still very much considers herself a “Mills woman” and is excited to continue with her music major in the fall. She said she sees herself as a natural leader and sees competing for Miss California as a chance to be a role model for young African American women.
Moore has been performing opera and belly dancing for many years. She said the pageant officials told her that her performing experience makes her an attractive contestant because she will be able to help guide the other women who do not have experience on stage.
“I didn’t expect them to pick me,” she said. During the initial 30 minute phone interview, Moore felt she charmed the interviewer with her answer to the question, “How would you save the world?”
“This sounds naïve but I said that I would save the world with perfect love and true honesty and the courage of Gryffindor,”
Once a contestant has paid her initial fee of nearly $1800, she chooses a city, county, or region to be her title and receives a pageant sash displaying the title. Moore hopes to represent the city of Loma Linda, Solon has already received the title of Miss Alemeda County, and Williams is hoping to get Miss Oakland.
Much of the pageant experience involves a contestant raising sponsorship for her competition, and this means spreading news of their intention to compete and casting a wide net to ask for donations. Contestants are urged to ask everyone they know, hold events and rally their community around them.
A first pageant for all three women, they admit that they were initially hesitant to tell people on campus about their intentions to compete. Though they say that close friends have supported them, Solon and Williams worried that the larger Mills community may not react with the same acceptance.
At a school that is known for its progressive Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies department, the contestants express suspicions that a pageant girl may not just be rare on campus, but unwelcome.
“I think that Mills kind of embraces the idea that this is an accepting environment. I think that it’s accepting in certain forms but not in others,” Solon said.
“I’m absolutely surprised,” said senior Amber Hopkins when asked what she thought about Mills women competing in Miss California. “It seems part of mainstream culture that people [at Mills] are trying… not to evade, but at least deconstruct.”
Some are not surprised that Mills women would compete in a beauty pageant, but could not endorse the competition.
“I’m not surprised,” says Shanna Hullaby, a cross-registered student. “But it’s kind of anti feminist. [Miss California] doesn’t even have a talent portion so you’re kind of just there to wear different garments and answer a question.” After a moment of thought Hullaby added, “But no one should ever block a woman from competing.”
Hullaby’s sentiment was echoed by most Mills women who were interviewed.
When asked about their own views on how feminism fits in to the topic of beauty pageants, Moore, Williams and Solon all said they identify as feminists and recognize the reasons people might have for objecting to pageants. They recognized that at times their identity as feminists could oppose their desire to compete in a beauty pageant as an example of gender subordination, but it is their right to embody the two concepts.
“I think they’re separate,” Solon said. Similarly, Williams felt that feminism does not define all of what she is.
“I feel like I am a feminist but a feminist isn’t me,” Williams said.
Williams also said that, for her, pageants and feminism do not necessarily oppose each other.
“There’s part of me that’s conscious of women’s rights but there’s also a part of me that’s like, ‘this is fun,’” she said.
For the contestants, the pageant offers a platform to speak out about topics that they feel are important. The chance to do good work and have their voice be heard is more empowering than any amount of problematic gender performance could be disempowering.
“I see myself as an ideal of balance, not a woman put on display. I see myself as someone other feminist activists can look up to,” Moore said. For Moore, that embodiment of dual concepts indicates a balance that should be admired.
“She’s doing this because it will be fun for her but I think a lot of it is about what she can do for other people” said Ari Nussbaum, a first year, about Moore. The two became friends when they lived the same dorm hall.
Williams said the promise of scholarship money and prizes were what initially interested her but now that she has had some experience with the pageant, the prize money is almost beside the point.
“I’m not about the competition, I’m just interested in the journey,” William said. She said the pageant has already brought her positive things, such as modeling job offers that she will use to help pay for the pageant fees, and a sense of belonging that she does not feel she has had at Mills.
“I came here to build a strong connection with women,” she said about her choice to come to Mills after completing her undergraduate degree Syracuse University in New York. Cheerful and quick to laugh, Williams explained that she has made a few close friends at Mills, but that she felt like she has more in common with the other pageant contestants she has met during in-person interviews for Miss California.
“I felt a sense of connection with them that I haven’t felt with a lot of Mills women.”
As of April 23rd, Miss California USA is still accepting applications, so it is unclear yet how many other women will be competing for the title. A representative of the Miss USA organization said that usually the state competitions see 80 – 150 contestants.