An array of high heeled shoes, bobby pins and false lashes litter the floor of the small, beige dressing room in the Downing Student Union auditorium as contests prepare for the 46th annual Miss Black Western pageant. Eight girls donned in matching pink t-shirts flutter around the room, asking one another for opinions on shoe choice and reciting monologues to themselves as they face wall-to-wall mirrors.
In one corner, a contestant turns her face upward as another helps her smear a pink, glittery powder on her eyelids. On the other side of the room, various contestants take turns trying to tie a head wrap into a perfect bow for one contestant’s praise dance routine. Rhinestone-covered dresses and dashkis—bright, African tunics—are draped over each chair as the room buzzes in anticipation.
Forty-six years ago, Miss Black Western was established by Alpha Kappa Alpha when Black women were not allowed to compete for Homecoming queen. Every year, the sorority sponsors the pageant for African-American women on Western’s campus. After holding an informational and auditions, practice for the pageant begins mid-February and continues until the show in late April.
Though the purpose of the pageant has changed since its origin, pageant chair Calvion Tandy said its goal is the same.
“The goal of the pageant is, and always has been, to build confidence in women,” Tandy, a senior from Hopkinsville, said. “We will continue to move forward and pursue the wishes of those that came before us.”
After months of practice and hours of getting ready, each contestant took her place onstage at DSU on Friday night. As the curtain opened, cheers erupted from the audience, and the girls began a group dance number to a compilation of upbeat music, including tracks from Beyonce and Bruno Mars.
Next, each contestant introduced herself as family and friends held up homemade signs. The girls then showed off their spring wear, followed by talent segments including monologues, praise dances and a spoken word poem. Then, contestants displayed their formal wear, and the top five were chosen to answer a question onstage.
At the end of the night, Alexus Reed, a Lexington sophomore was crowned Miss Black Western.
Reed, who recently transferred from Savannah State, a historically Black university, said the pageant helped her adjust to life on the Hill.
“The hardest part of the transition was not fitting in and feeling awkward,” Reed said. “Going to a HBCU, [historically black college or university,] where everyone was the same color, it was easier to connect with people.”
Reed said at WKU, she is one of three Black girls in most of her classes. Her scholarly personality has kept her from fitting in, but she said the pageant created a presence of intelligent Black women where she could feel comfortable.
Hailey Whitehead, who was awarded Miss Scholastic, Miss Congeniality and First Runner up, also feels participation in Miss Black Western has influenced her experience with collegiate education.
“As a Black woman in college, people have looked at me and assumed that I was dumb,” Whitehead said. “After a while, I started to believe them. The pageant made me realize I was smart and gave me the confidence to let everyone know that.”
Whitehead auditioned for the pageant in hopes of gaining friendships with other African-American women and confidence in herself, and Miss Black Western helped her accomplish both of these goals.
“To me, it never felt like a competition,” Whitehead said. “It felt like we were all in it together.”
After the awards and participation trophies were distributed, and the final rounds of applause came to an end, the contestants carefully placed their dresses back into garment bags, wiped the make up from their eyes and exchanged their high heels for bare feet. One by one, each contestant left, lugging their duffle bags and suitcases behind them and leaving the once vibrant dressing room empty and colorless.
Quinn Hogan, the 2015 pageant said the individual transformations in the contestants outlasted the rhinestones and color of the pageant itself.
“You will feel yourself change after the pageant,” Hogan told contestants prior to their performance. “Being a part of this, you will grow.”