The significance of being a black Miss America has not been lost on them. “If you’re a winner, you don’t just represent yourself, you represent a whole host of people who have the same visions, aspirations and challenges that you do,” said Erika Harold, who won in 2003. “It’s an incredible opportunity to be able to show women of all backgrounds that beauty comes in every shade of the rainbow.
“I can’t tell you the number of times I would go to places throughout the country where there just might be one little black girl sitting in that audience. … She would usually come up afterward and talk to you, and you’d compare hair texture, you would share stories about what it’s like to be the ‘only one.’ It was incredibly affirming to realize that you could give something back to her to let her know that you may be the only one, but don’t let that limit what you think you could achieve. Oftentimes they would look like my little sister, and I would tell them that.”
Harold also enrolled in the system because she needed scholarship money. She ended up winning all she needed to graduate from Harvard Law School in 2007 debt-free, an “extraordinary blessing “ in this economy, she said. She now works as an attorney in the litigation practice of Burke, Warren, MacKay & Serritella. Her work involved civil RICO, class action, fraud and breach of contract disputes. While in law school, she won the prize for best-written legal briefs in the Harvard Ames Moot Court, where she argued her case before Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy and several federal circuit judges.
But access to scholarships isn’t the only thing that makes the Miss America pageant relevant to black women, judging from interviews with former winners. Competing in a bathing suit, or an evening gown, and going on to tour the country in a tiara are all part of an education process that can help Miss America be more persuasive in whatever career she settles on, including law.
“Your job as Miss America is to be able to connect with people and to be able to assess situations very quickly and to be able to be quick on your feet,” Harold said. “Having a year in your life in which you get to practice those skills does enable you to be more effective when you’re in the courtroom, when you’re in a deposition, or when you are called upon to be at your best in unexpected situations.”
Winning the crown can be a life-altering experience, one that most people don’t understand. Being Miss America isn’t encapsulated by that moment when the crown is placed on your head, according to Harold. It’s what happens after you walk off that runway into your year that really matters. “You’ve become a completely different woman during that year, because you’ve been in so many situations where you’ve been challenged, and you’ve been pressed to move outside of your comfort zone and your own personal limitations, and you realize that you are stronger than you thought you were, more capable than you thought you were, and able to be moved more deeply than you thought you were — because Miss America is an iconic position.”
Winning actually takes a lot out of the winner. Some liken it to a presidential campaign. Winners travel upwards of 20,000 miles a month, arriving and departing a different city every 18 to 36 hours, working seven days a week for 48 weeks.