Black Beauty Queens and Global Representational Politics

Kalyin Chapman, Miss America Pageant 1994, Atlantic City, New Jersey (Shutterstock)

This article first appeared in Made By History. The original can be accessed here.

In January, Cheslie Kryst, who was known as an attorney, television correspondent and former Miss USA, died tragically by suicide. Her loss has been widely felt. In part, this is because Kryst’s title as Miss USA was historic. In 2019, she helped make pageant history when she along with three other Black women — Nia Imani Franklin, Kaliegh Garris and Zozibini Tunzi — took home the titles of Miss USA, Miss America, Miss Teen USA and Miss Universe, respectively. It marked the first time that Black women won four major pageant titles in the same year. “Finally the universe is giving value to black skin,” wrote Leila Lopes, a former Miss Universe, at the time. 

For decades, mainstream beauty standards have centered whiteness, with white women becoming the epitome of “beauty” around the world. Consequently, the whiteness of beauty has excluded Black women from that narrow definition. While Lopes was correct in that Black representation has increased at the highest ranks of beauty pageants, anti-blackness remains engrained in U.S. and global beauty standards. 

Beauty pageants have long been a space for contesting exclusion. For example in 1968, women protested the Miss America pageant, which had historically excluded women of color and had never featured a Black contestant. Two different groups protested: feminists claiming that the pageant was sexist and civil rights activists calling out its racism. In protest, the NAACP organized an alternative contest, the Miss Black America pageant, to be held on the same day as Miss America, in Atlantic city. 

At the Miss Black America pageant, Black women combated racial discrimination by creating their own space celebrating Black beauty in an all-Black pageant. The event emerged from a growing movement of Black consciousness, where Black people sought self-determination and Black empowerment on their own terms. It was a specific attempt to reject what psychologist Huberta Jackson-Lowman describes as globalized Eurocentric standards of beauty where  “beauty must adhere to European characteristics in terms of skin color, facial features, hair texture and length, eye color, and physique.” Global industries encourage, maintain and market these same, white Eurocentric standards of beauty celebrating thinness, light skin, long hair and other features. Pageants have been part of this production. 

But the first Miss Black America, Saundra Williams, triumphed with her natural Afro hair style and “curvy” figure distinct from what the competition’s sponsors deemed “the white stereotype” of typical pageant winners. Not only this, while wearing a “bright yellow jumpsuit with bells around her ankles,” Williams portrayed a Pan-African and global Black identity with her “Fiji” African inspired dance. Williams held her title with pride as she stated, “This is better than Miss America.” She articulated Blackness was more than sufficient, as notions of Black Power and Black beauty were on display as she suggested, “With my title, I can show Black women that they too are beautiful, even though they do have large noses and thick lips.” 

In 1970, the Miss America pageant itself finally featured a Black contestant. But more consequentially, Jennifer Hosten became the first Black winner of Miss World since its creation in 1951. The contest was held in London, and as in the United States in the late 1960s, the British women’s liberation movement protested the pageant for sexism and its objectification of women. 

Some women including Hosten, a Black woman from Grenada, did not view pageants in this same light. Hosten explained, “it wasn’t my thought that I was being exploited. If I had thought that, I wouldn’t have taken part.” She said she simply entered pageants to travel, represent her country and possibly make money. By selecting a Black winner, the pageant seemed to signal a shift in beauty standards to be more inclusive and representative. 

But the politics of the event were also ambivalent; as the world criticized South Africa for its highly racist and unjust apartheid system, Miss World organizers allowed the country to send two candidates — one White, one Black — to compete on the country’s behalf. Although Pearl Jansen, a Black South African, became Miss World’s second place winner, the pageant explicitly displayed South African apartheid on a global platform by allowing dual contestants. 

Moreover, White media outlets undermined Hosten’s win, with headlines like, “Miss World is Black, and is she the most beautiful girl in the world?” It was difficult for some viewers and commentators to see a Black woman as fully beautiful in light of long-standing Eurocentric beauty standards. As sociologist Maxine Leeds Craig has argued, that as pageants like Miss American and White women “established the reigning definition of beauty, it reinforced cultural codes that placed Black women outside of the beauty ideal.”

Contrasting the two events — 1968’s Miss Black America and 1970’s Miss World — is instructive. Although both selected Black winners, Miss Black America enabled Black women to express disproval of Eurocentric beauty standards and demonstrate that their beauty did not need White validation. Yet, Miss World demonstrated the limitations of a politics of representation, given how the pageant’s gesture at inclusion — inviting two contestants from South Africa —reinforced segregation and masked oppression under a thin veil of diversity. 

Steadily, Black representation in pageants has increased. Vanessa Williams became the first Black Miss America in 1984. In 2019, all four major titles were held by Black women for the first time. In 2021, three Black women won the major competitions of Miss USA (Elle Smith) Miss Earth (Destiny Wagner) and Miss Teen USA (Breanna Myles). Although by some measures, this increase in Black representation demonstrates more diverse beauty standards and shifting categories of acceptance, it would be premature to suggest that the world is progressing toward an antiracist society. 

Even in a moment of historic global reckoning with white supremacy and racism through Black Lives Matter protests, it is not clear whether representation can translate to meaningful equality. For example, Abena Appiah, winner of the 2020 Miss Grand International pageant and the first Black woman to represent the United States in that pageant, wore a custom gown that portrayed images of victims of police brutality such as Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. The moment stunned, and Appiah gained access to a global platform. But her win has not translated to broader structural change or attention. Less than two years after the killing of George Floyd, the same police department has killed another Black man, Amir Locke.

Evidence suggests that the fashion world’s promises to expand diversity in the aftermath of 2020’s antiracist uprisings have gone unfulfilled. In the beauty industry, whiteness remains big business; the global market for skin whitening is projected to increase to over $11 billion by 2026. 

This suggests that conversations surrounding diversity and inclusion are not enough. When we see strategies touting the importance of “representation” alongside a profound lack of structural change, we can only conclude that it is at best, insufficient and at worst a distraction from other forms of struggle.

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Mickell Carter

Mickell Carter is a doctoral student and graduate teaching assistant at Auburn University. Her research interests include Black internationalism, 20th-century social movements, and the intersections between politics and culture. Her current project examines linkages between Black men’s style during the Black Power Movement, Pan-Africanism, and masculinity. Mickell also assists and conducts oral histories for the Selma project which aims to locate and identify people involved in Bloody Sunday.