The Truth About Pageantry: Empowerment, Service and Confidence

By Barbara Ron

Toddlers and tiaras. Parents screaming at their children and their coaches. Fierce and toxic competition. Kids crying because they’re unable to reach impossibly high standards set for them and by them. Is this pageantry? A deeper look into the real world of beauty pageants shows a very different perspective.

Some people may think those negative descriptions are what beauty pageants are all about, but that’s not the reality for many participants, including Sydney Nichole Jackson, the 2020 Miss District of Columbia Teen USA.

Many mistakenly think that in order to succeed in pageants, contestants must start young, live their lives only for pageants and be wealthy. But that isn’t necessarily true.

“I did it just to see what would happen,” said Jackson, who applied to her first pageant at 17 years old after following the show Toddlers and Tiaras. After getting first runner-up, she was encouraged by former beauty queens and her fellow contestants to keep competing.

At school, Jackson said her interests differed from her peers’. While still maintaining school as her priority, fashion was always on her mind.

“Oftentimes I would have history presentations, and I would choose to do the history of Christian Dior or the history of Chanel, and everyone else was doing political parties and things like that. I just always felt a little bit out of place,” she said.

At the competitions, Jackson didn’t expect what she experienced backstage: contestants and former winners taking business calls. 

“I remember at Miss USA they were like, ‘Are we going to have time to be in our rooms? Because I have a few Zoom meetings,’” Jackson said. “Some of them own their own businesses, others were in medical and law school and they have things going on, not just pageantry.”

She was amazed that these women had their own lives, passions and professions outside of pageants. For her, pageants brought her various interests together.

“Pageantry gave me this outlet of being accepted for loving makeup, being accepted for loving fashion, and it was me,” Jackson said.

Not only do winners get to do photoshoots and win scholarship money, but they also give back to their community. Jackson works with the program Princess for a Day, which is run by Coressa Williams. 

Princess for a Day teaches young girls to embrace their inner beauty and be confident, without it being a competition. The program is aimed at kids ages three to 17 and every girl gets to be a princess. One activity to promote self-love involves a mirror.

“We teach mirror images, where our girls speak to mirrors and they will tell that mirror, ‘I’m beautiful and I’m amazing, just the way I am,’’’ Williams said. “We found out that the younger the girls are, the better it is because repetition is a great teacher.” 

As Jackson works with Princess for a Day, she applies the confidence she gained through pageants to work and give back to young girls who need a strong and successful female role model. 

Williams is very strict on how she runs her program and who she brings in as mentors; so strict that Jackson is the first and only ambassador — thus far — to the program. Usually, the titleholders and former beauty queens work with Williams’ program for only a year or less, but Jackson has been involved for more than a year now.

“I will be very honest; I really am very selective with who I bring on … [Sydney] brings a lot to the table. She’s amazing. She has substance, and I look for substance. Because I don’t want you talking to these young girls if you don’t have something to really offer them,” Williams said.

The confidence that Jackson helps Williams teach in the program is one that these young girls will find invaluable for their future. Similarly, the pageants Jackson competed in provided her and the 2017 Miss District of Columbia Teen USA winner, Karis Felton, empowerment and confidence that outsiders wouldn’t think was possible for pageants to provide. 

“I walk into job interviews fearless,” Felton emphasized. “Because I know that there’s not going to be any question in a job interview that is more difficult than the woman who asked me at 15 what kind of tree would I be and why.”

Felton said she and Jackson are part of a sisterhood, calling Jackson her “grand-little.” The previous year’s winner advises and looks after the next year’s contestants and winner. But even though Jackson was not Felton’s direct successor, Felton still wanted to help her.

Felton helped prepare Jackson for interviews, practicing her walk for the stage and picking appropriate outfits for different occasions. Felton said that for her, pageantry has provided her with the confidence she needed to be successful in her regular life.

Felton has also proudly watched as Jackson took what she learned from pageantry and applied it to be an outspoken advocate for the Black Lives Matter movement that took center stage last summer.

“Sydney was one of the only vocal titleholders about Black Lives Matter … when the protests were going on. She was donating and making awareness posts,” Felton said. 

Jackson continues to use her platform for good by giving back to the community that supported her and uplifting the other women and young girls around her. When little girls go up to her and say Jackson’s a princess, she replies with a “no” and teaches them why.

“I do that with intent, so that they know that it doesn’t pay to just be a princess. It’s important you go to school, it’s important to care about people, it’s important to do your community service,” Jackson said.