A’Niyah Birdsong didn’t grow up competing in pageant shows. Instead, she watched a lot of “Toddlers & Tiaras” on TLC and, though fascinated, believed she was too old to start competing at the time.
That changed when she decided to compete in her first pageant.
“I thought it would be a great way to end out my senior year, and it would give me an opportunity to come back next year, just to give a little bit more back to IU,” she said.
The IU senior was crowned Miss IU on Sunday, Feb. 26. She is the third ever black Miss IU.
Instead of practicing the art of pageants while growing up, Birdsong went to the military-style Anderson Preparatory Academy in Anderson, Indiana, where she fell in love with biology. Birdsong is a biology pre-med student and wants to be an OB-GYN because she said she has always been a big women’s advocate.
Birdsong incorporated her love of science into the pageantry program as her platform. Every contestant in the Miss IU pageant has a platform to base her interview and reason for competing on.
“The job of Miss IU is fun, parading around and all that, but the heart of it is seeing the need in the community and doing your part,” Miss IU 2016 Justus Coleman said.
Birdsong’s platform was centered around science, technology, engineering and mathematics outreach and overcoming stereotypes and gender biases, which came from her passion for science and involvement in IU’s Center of Excellence for Women in Technology as an intern for CEWiT’s student interest group Black Women in Technology. She is also the president of Epiphany Modeling Troupe, an organization to unite all students and allow them to express their love of fashion and give them confidence through skills development.
“I was always infatuated with the idea of uplifting women, and so with the pageant not only am I, yes, parading around on the stage, but my significance of why I’m doing it is way deeper for me,” she said.
The Miss IU Pageant consists of an off-stage interview with judges and competitions in talent, lifestyle and fitness in a swimsuit, evening gown, and onstage question phases. Every contestant’s platform is given to the judges with a résumé, which the contestants are asked about during the interview stage, Birdsong said.
Lauren McNeeley, a December 2016 IU graduate who also used to work at the IDS, is the most recent outgoing president of Pageantry at IU. She explained judges look for someone who is more than just a pretty face. They weigh the talent and off-interview phases higher than other categories, and they look for someone who can be outgoing and friendly while representing the University well at local and state levels.
Birdsong created her talent, called “sassy science.” It consisted of choreographed scenes with Epiphany Modeling Troupe and chemistry demonstrations.
She performed two experiments — one combustion experiment, resulting in a green flame, and one dry ice experiment — in front of the crowd. She also started off the section with a short clip from the recent film “Hidden Figures” because she said it relates to her platform of empowering women and others in science.
“My number one thing with STEM overcoming stereotypes and gender biases was letting you know that women can go and venture out and just dominate if they wanted to,” she said. “Even though you’re underrepresented in these fields, you still can make a bigger impact no matter whatever face you wear. It doesn’t matter your race, your gender.”
After her talent, Birdsong moved onto the other categories like modeling a royal blue swimsuit because the color reminded her of poise and elegance and a fitted plum-colored evening gown. The top of the dress was adorned with jewels, which Birdsong said she believed reflected her personable and outgoing personality.
Though Birdsong had not competed in a pageant before, she said she gained confidence through her work with Epiphany Modeling Troupe, which has a similar pageant feeling and helped members to show their confidence and personalities. Beyond this, though, Birdsong competed because she had a purpose in her platform and wanted to make a difference.
“I don’t need any prior experience because all I have to do is be me, the real me,” she said.
The strategy worked for her. Birdsong won the crown at her first pageant and the people’s choice award and interview award and became Miss IU 2017. Coleman crowned Birdsong in front of the crowd in Alumni Hall.
Coleman said the pageant allows students of all kinds to be who they are on stage while competing for the title.
“It’s them embracing all of what womanhood is,” Coleman said.
Coleman and Birdsong are the second and third ever black Miss IU winners. The first was Nancy Streets-Lyons, who was crowned Miss IU in 1959.
“Winning Miss IU gave me that platform for other women that look like me and not necessarily look like me but have been underrepresented in certain areas,” Birdsong said. “It gave me that platform to speak to them. No matter what the circumstance is or prior situations may be, you can always push the envelope and challenge those.”
Coleman voiced a similar opinion, explaining how much it touched her to see young black girls want to compete in pageants after seeing Coleman in her crown.
“As a minority, it’s beautiful to see other minorities inspired,” she said.
Birdsong and Coleman said it was an honor to be a part of the history and achievement of black students at IU. Birdsong said it highlighted how the University is becoming more diverse and how its traditions and opportunities can mold women into leaders. As Miss IU, she wants to use her platform to tell others about the opportunities that IU provides to its students.
Coleman said through her year of being an icon for the University, she became a stronger person in every aspect of her life.
Birdsong plans to use the values of determination and motivation that her family instilled in her to reach out to the community of IU and Bloomington. She wants to tell others about the ways IU shaped her as a person, while also being a brand for the University by promoting higher education and STEM outreach. This passion, she said, is how she defines beauty.
“You can have a beautiful face and no purpose, so for me, beauty lies within,” she said. “It’s what your purpose is in life, your purpose here at school, however you take it. It’s all about being purposeful. Beauty is purposeful.”
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