Abena Appiah, the first African American to represent the United States in the Miss Grand International pageant, recently went head-to-head with 62 other beauty queens. And not only did she win the title on March 27, but she also used the worldwide stage as an opportunity to bring awareness to social justice issues.
One of the ways she did this was through a custom dress worn during the "National Costume" segment of the competition. The gown featured portraits of victims of police brutality such as Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Akai Garley. "I am basically trying to tell people that even though there's so much corruption and hate crimes in our society if we come together as one — we can all be equal," she shares with Yahoo Life about the meaning behind the look.
The 27-year-old powerhouse holds a bachelor of science from SUNY Purchase in New York newand is also a musical artist and anti-bullying advocate who hopes to "inspire and motivate young women to be the best versions of themselves and to encourage them to follow their dreams and passions."
Appiah is also in the process of starting a virtual program called "Heavy Crown Academy," which will "be geared towards uplifting young women of color and giving them the tools she gained during her journey through the pageantry world." She hopes that it will give "women the courage and confidence to compete in these competitions and build a foundation of confidence to conquer the world with its many obstacles."
Appiah spoke to Yahoo Life about her new title, her past experiences with bullying and what it means to be the person you needed as a child.
Yahoo Lifestyle: First and foremost, congratulations! You have made history as the first Black woman to win Miss Grand International. How does it feel?
Abena Appiah: I feel amazing. I never knew that this could ever happen. Since I was three years old, I have been wanting to achieve this kind of dream. I've always wanted to be a beauty queen, not just a local beauty queen or a national beauty queen — I’ve always ... wanted to gain an international platform to be able to speak about things that are happening in our society, but I've always been told that I'm not enough. 'I don't fit into the standards of beauty. I'm not pretty enough. My skin is too dark. My hair is too coarse.'
I started in 2014. I went from Miss Universe to Miss Earth and now Miss Grand. I failed at [Miss] Universe [and] didn't do well at [Miss] Earth. Even a day before the competition, I was told that I should just give up because they are never going to crown a queen that has my complexion or my type of hair, so going on stage I had already lost hope. I didn't believe that I could even make it to the top 20. I still wake up every morning and I'm like, ‘Oh my gosh, I am Miss Grand International.’ I'm really excited, but this is also a big opportunity and I'm really looking forward to what it has in store for me.
What inspired you to take on pageantry?
When I was little, I was bullied a lot. I remember from the age of nine when I was in school, I would always get picked on for [being] the tallest girl in class or they would call me an African monkey or they’d say my skin is too dark. I would change schools every single year because I didn't fit in. It got to a point where I just couldn't do it anymore, so when I was getting towards the last two years of high school, I was homeschooled. I just couldn't take it anymore.
I went through a lot and it brought my self-esteem down. It made me feel like I wasn't enough — like I wasn't pretty [and] I wasn't beautiful. Getting into pageantry, I realized it was going to give me a platform to be a role model for girls who were feeling the same way that I felt when I was little. When I was little, I didn't really have [a] role model. I had my mom, but I wanted someone who was [also] in the entertainment industry that I [could] look up to, so I wanted to be that role model for other girls.
How did the idea for your national costume come about?
This competition [is] a major platform and there's so many things happening — especially in the [United] States. Recently, the whole issue with George Floyd and police brutality, now there's so much hate on Asian lives — it's just so much going on. I decided to use my platform to be able to create awareness about issues that are important to me. Usually, [that] platform — you don't use it for that. [Most people] use that platform to exhibit something in your country that is fascinating, so maybe somebody might do the Statue of Liberty or the American Eagle, but I decided to portray Black Lives Matter.
With my costume, if you look at it, the black side has the names of those that are fallen, so I'm shedding light on the issues that happened. And then when you open the costume up, it talks about peace and unity. Two fists come together and they hold each other to form the unity bond. I am basically trying to tell people that even though there's so much corruption and hate crimes in our society if we come together as one — we can all be equal.
What has been the reaction to your Black Lives Matter-inspired gown?
A lot of people didn't take it right and a lot of people were saying bad things and bashing me about it. But at the end of the day, I was happy because ... I was able to make a difference. [I was] surprised [at some reactions] because this isn't something that people should be mad at me about. It's something that's important that's happening and I believe that people should know about it, so I was really confused when people were upset.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
The best advice I've ever received I'll say is from my mum. I used to always want to give up because I have failed so many times and she would always tell me that … success comes from failure. With me failing constantly, I am able to learn from that experience and it makes me powerful, so the best advice is to pick yourself back up once you fail and you keep on moving.
What advice would you give to a young girl facing similar challenges?
I would tell them that it's OK to be different [or] unique and you should be proud of the way you are. You shouldn't want to try and blend in just because it's what society deems as perfect — you are beautiful just the way you are. I would tell them that every day they should stand in front of the mirror and self-affirm: ‘You are beautiful. You are great. You are powerful. You are important. You are relevant. And you’re supposed to be here.’
It's [also] very important for us to take up space as women, [so] go out and live your best life. The sky's the limit.
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