Wearing a $50 evening gown and a megawatt smile, Melanie Robinson owned the stage at the Ms. Voluptuous International contest.
Her top-three finish proved something to the pageant veteran: winning was all about confidence, not expense. Now 52 and the reigning Ms. Voluptuous Mississippi, Robinson first competed at a local level in 1989. She didn’t pursue a crown again until she turned 50 and sought a special way to mark the milestone.
Her April appearance at Ms. Voluptuous International required six months of preparation, including practicing her evening-gown walk, personal introduction and interview questions, choosing her outfits, creating social media content, making appearances and developing her platform.
“The days are long, especially if you have hair and makeup done, and it’s important to pace yourself so you are good to go for the competition days,” Robinson says. “It’s over all too soon, and you’re exhausted afterward. But if you feel you grew as a person from doing it, then it’s all worth it.”
Several of her fellow titleholders — members of what Robinson calls “the sisterhood” — share her opinion. Despite the difficulties and frustrations, they say the pageant world offers them a unique vehicle for self-improvement.
“Oftentimes, you will fail over and over, and you have to learn to get back up and work harder,” says Daisha Hall, the reigning Miss Harrison County. “Nothing teaches me how to focus on my own path and self-growth better than pageantry does.”
The skills Hall learned on stage have translated into success for the 20-year-old, who attends Mississippi State University as a business management/marketing student, models for the university’s fashion board and operates a small business — The Bargainista. Outsiders may focus on the appearance side of pageants, but Hall emphasizes the mental — namely the strength and focus it takes to not become discouraged.
“Your dream has to be bigger than the crown or fame,” she says. “My passion for inspiring other young women and being a leader for women who look like me keeps me going.”
Although she’s only been competing for a year, Ja’Kaylee Minor also has found that pageants are more about inner than outer beauty. The 17-year-old, who holds the 2023 Miss Mississippi HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) Teen title, got involved because she wanted to step outside her comfort zone.
Even for the high-achieving cheerleader, who will graduate in May with both her high school diploma and an associate degree and is active in a slew of clubs and boards, pageant pressure took some getting used to.
“In my first pageant, we only had one day to rehearse (less than four hours) to remember every routine and learn every step of the show,” she says. “Behind the scenes, while they are putting on a show, we are constantly changing and getting ready at a very fast pace.”
Nonetheless, she found the chance to learn about herself and network with others invaluable.
“There is so much opportunity when competing in pageants,” Minor says, “and overall, it is such a wonderful and joyful experience!”
Pageants have evolved for the better, Robinson points out, by making presentation, interview and communication — skills that will carry a woman for life — a larger part of the overall score. They also showcase a wider range of body types, ages and backgrounds than ever before, which she finds inspiring.
“Seeing groundbreaking queens competing and winning pageants gave me hope that a 50-something, curvy woman with short purple hair had something to offer to the pageant world,” Robinson says.
Defying the movie stereotype of catty, fake-smiling contestants, Robinson says she has found a tribe of women who cheer each other on, offer a shoulder to cry on and help one another wherever possible. She counts that camaraderie among the best parts of her pageantry experience.
“The friends I have made in pageants are some of the most genuine, warm hearted, hard-working and generous people I have ever met,” she says. “Even if you don’t win a title, you didn’t lose if you made good friends.”