Najah Clay has made pageants a platform for serving others.
By Kathryn Freeman, Photos by Romina Olson, Styled by Parke Ballantine with inspiration from Nordstrom
For most of her life, Najah Clay never knew she could both serve her country and “serve” on the runway. It wasn’t until she met fellow servicewoman and Miss Rhode Island 2015, Allie Curtis, and then saw Miss USA 2016, Captain Deshauna Barber, that Clay realized she could not only occupy, but thrive in both worlds.
As former Miss Black Texas and reigning Miss Central Texas International, Clay now emphasizes just how impactful true representation really is. “It helps to see yourself represented and to see yourself outside of your situation, whether you are a girl struggling to go to school in Haiti, are lower income [in the U.S.], an abuse survivor or a woman in STEM,” she says.
Najah Clay’s Pageant Journey
Born in San Antonio into a military family, Clay was a tomboy growing up. “[Serving in the military] was a rite of passage. Boys went into the Army, and girls went into the Air Force. You stayed in long enough to get education benefits because no one was going to pay for your college. Then you used your education benefits to go into medicine or law,” she says. But Clay decided to chart her own path, though it has not been an easy journey. She endured bouts of homelessness as a teen, the loss of a brother in a car accident and sexual assault as a member of the U.S. Army.
Her way into pageants was a circuitous one. She became interested in modeling, acting and pageants in her junior year of high school. But it was not until she enlisted, when she met Allie Curtis and they bonded over their love of pageants, that she began to think of pageants as a place for someone like her. “Allie inspired me to participate in pageants because she saved my life when I was in the Army,” Clay shares. “I wanted to have the same impact on young women that she had on me.”
It may sound like a cliche, but representation matters. Being able to see yourself reflected in popular culture, in positions of power, as smart and beautiful matters for all young people. But for Black women—who for long periods of the country’s history have been excluded from idealized visions of success and beauty—representation in beauty pageants is not trivial.
Pageants have an important place in the American psyche. In her book Ain’t I a Beauty Queen?: Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race, sociologist Maxine Leeds Craig argues that to the extent that the Miss America pageant “established the reigning definition of beauty, it reinforced cultural codes that placed Black women outside of the beauty ideal.”
Predominantly white media often portrayed Black women as ugly, overtly sexual, servile and rough. Black, middle-class organizations like the NAACP and Greek organizations like Alpha Phi Alpha sought to counter these racist portrayals of Black women by hosting their own pageants such as Miss Black America and Miss Black and Gold. In creating their own pageants, Black social and civic organizations were denying Eurocentric beauty ideals that said Black women were undesirable or unworthy of celebration.
“Major pageants like Miss USA and Miss America have a racist history,” Clay states matter-of-factly. In fact, in the 1930s, rule seven of the Miss America pageant formalized that all contestants must be of “good health and the white race.” The rule was formally abolished in 1950. But it was not until 1970 that a Black woman would appear on stage as a contestant. Miss Iowa, Cheryl Browne. Vanessa Williams would be the first Black woman crowned Miss America in 1984. But the definition of beauty continues to expand. In 2019, all four of the winners of the major pageants were Black: Miss Teen USA, Kaliegh Garris; Miss USA, Cheslie Kryst; Miss America, Nia Franklin; and Miss Universe, Zozibini Tunzi. Clay also notes that Miss America, Emma Broyles, is Korean American. And the current Miss Texas International (the crown Clay will compete for this spring), Xavia Wigfall, is Black.
Standards of beauty are broadening, and the diversity of current pageant winners reflects those changes. “We are seeing major shifts in all of the major pageants. Not just in diversity of skin color, but diversity of body types and talent,” Clay says. She points to Miss Universe Thailand, Anchilee Scott-Kemmis, who by Asian standards is considered plus size; yet she placed in the top 15 at the Miss Universe pageant. She also highlighted Miss America 2020, Camille Schrier, who won the title by performing a science experiment complete with lab coat and protective goggles as her talent—thereby associating a woman’s ability with her brain, and not her body. These are not your mother’s beauty standards. Clay, like many young women, welcomes the shift.
“You do not have to be a size zero to be on the stage at Miss Universe. And you do not have to wear a bikini to be Miss America,” says Clay. “Deshauna was a dark-skinned Black woman with 4C hair when she won the crown. This new diversity is really beautiful.”
Even for Black women, where communal beauty standards have historically perpetuated a colorist ideal of beauty—light skin, light eyes, straight hair—seeing winners like Clay and Barber points to an expanded view of what is beautiful.
Najah Clay’s Scars
Part of the expanded beauty ideal Clay represents is the refusal to hide her scars. While serving in the U.S. Army she was sexually assaulted by her drill sergeant. “I wear a crown and I wave and I sit on floats. But I am also a person who’s had hard times, not a perfect pageant patty,” she says defiantly. “I am a human being; I have survived, and I have a story to tell.” The ordeal was traumatic. “For a long time, I believed I was worthless because of [the way my assault was handled]. The quality of my work was altered. So my career opportunities were affected all while I saw the reputation and safety of my abuser prioritized over my actual physical safety.”
The experience stuck with her even after she left the military; she worried what her new civilian colleagues might think or what might happen once her case went to trial.
Clay says she is living with her traumas. “I will never cure my trauma. I can’t change what happened. But I can learn to live with them. That is what makes me a survivor.”
Accepting the reality of trauma and being a victim can be hard for Black women. The “strong Black woman” trope is just as harmful as being stereotyped as ugly or sexually deviant. Clay argues that it is important for Black women to refuse to just “suck it up” and rather allow themselves to be acknowledged as victims.
Najah Clay Will Not Be Silenced
Clay points out that Black women are more likely to be subject to fatal domestic violence and sexual abuse. According to the Violence Policy Center, Black women are murdered by men at more than twice the rate of white women. The American Psychological Association found that 1 in 5 Black women was a survivor of rape (a higher share than women overall) and that 40% to 60% of Black women report coercive sexual contact by age 18. The strong Black woman trope belies the statistics and encourages Black women to ignore their pain and vulnerability. Suffering is often either hidden or ignored in favor of a narrative that prevents healing and thriving.
But as writer Zora Neale Hurston wrote in her masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God, “If you’re silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”
Clay knows what it is to stand in front of peers who do not respect you. Who mock your suffering and ignore your pain. “[The assault] stayed with me,” she reveals. “I was afraid of applying for jobs I was overqualified for. Of being in predominantly male environments, of wearing the wrong thing and just being defined by it.”
Clay refuses to be silent about her own suffering or the suffering of others. “Black women have a right to say, ‘I am not okay, this is not okay.’” She stresses Black women deserve softness, peace, stability, gentleness and kindness. “To become a survivor, a victim needs help, safe refuge and, most importantly, justice.”
She is defiant and determined to advocate for others.
Use Your Voice
While she acknowledges her traumas are still with her, she will not let them define her. “It was hard, but eventually I was able to turn the negative into a positive,” she says. “Pageants gave me a platform to help homeless youth and other survivors of sexual trauma and domestic violence.”
Now Clay takes every opportunity to inspire others just like Curtis and Barber inspired her.
Clay’s experience as a sexual assault survivor has served as a catalyst for her platform. First as Miss Black Texas International Ambassador 2020 and now as reigning Miss Central Texas International. She has been able to take her story and show the world that despite how she looks, she knows what it is to feel ignored. Last year, she received the Jane Doe Award from the Genesis Women’s Shelter in Dallas. The award seeks to honor the thousands of nameless and faceless victims of domestic violence by recognizing those who commit to standing with victims through their journey to safety.
Najah Clay’s Platform
“I have made being a voice to the voiceless a crucial part of my platform. As a survivor of military sexual trauma, I know what it feels like to be muted and unheard, so my platform is going to different underrepresented or unheard communities and saying, ‘You deserve to be heard, and your truth is valid, and your story matters regardless of what [you look like]or where you are from,’” Clay declares. So far, she has lent her voice to homeless youth in Austin, domestic violence survivors in Dallas, young girls in Haiti seeking educational opportunities, girls in STEM, the Central Texas Girls and Boys Club and sexual assault survivors.
While Clay has faced many obstacles, and no one would blame her if she gave herself over to despair, she is a ray of sunshine during the Zoom chat. She smiles as she recalls one of her proudest moments and the ways her work as Miss Central Texas International has created opportunities for wider impact. For example, when she gave what she deemed a standard “stay in school” speech, she spoke afterward with a young female student about her drawings of cats and other artwork. The next day the program director informed Clay that the young lady was autistic and previously communicated very little with her peers and teachers. Her interaction with Clay had been both an anomaly and impactful. The two became friends, and Clay sent her an art kit to encourage her to continue to pursue her artistic endeavors.
“Sometimes I am speaking in front of a bunch of people, or I am reading off a teleprompter, and I feel so disconnected, but [pageants]have given me a platform to connect with others, to see their faces and connect with them on a deeper level,” Clay beams. One does not need a platform to be a support or friend, particularly to someone experiencing domestic or sexual violence. She suggests our job is much simpler than that of a judge or police officer. “You can just be a good friend, offer support and help them get access to resources…that is what everyone needs, and anyone can do [it].”
Don’t Just Wait
Clay is an inspiration in more ways than one. But she does not want to be alone on the stage. She believes pageants are for every woman. “There are so many pageant systems out there. So focus more on the content and the quality of your platform and how you could capitalize on the opportunities of the platform and less on [fitting old stereotypes], because things are shifting.”
While representation matters, she also warns against sitting around and waiting for someone who looks like you to go first. “Maybe there is not anyone that looks like you, because they are waiting for you?” She points out that if Vanessa Williams had not said yes, there would be no Kenya Moore or Deshauna Barber. You can be the first woman to win the crown or run the company or invent the product while using your unique traits as strengths. “You do not have to wait, because the opportunity you are looking for may never come,” Clay adds. “Instead of waiting, you could build your own table.”
While her time serving in the military clearly demonstrates she is no wilting flower, Clay gives a new definition of strength, saying she feels her strongest by remembering where she started and where she is now. When life knocks her down, she writes down the things she can control and the things that are out of her control and focuses her energy on the former.
Right now, that energy is focused on preparing for Miss Texas International. She is taking the conventional steps like walking with books on her head. But it would not be Clay’s way without doing the unconventional things too. When asked how she was preparing, she offers, “I am volunteering more, just so I can remember what my platform is about. I am going into my community and connecting with survivors and other marginalized groups.”
The True Aim of Feminism
The pageants have provided her a platform to speak on behalf of those who can’t speak for themselves. Clay wants to remain connected to her purpose. Whether she is walking in circles at her home or walking the stage in an expensive dress, she is not your typical pageant girl. While she wants to win, Clay seems less focused on the awards and more focused on the platform the wins provide. The Miss International pageant program is the fourth largest pageant in the world. “It is one of the biggest platforms in the world, and I take great pride [in the fact that]I have lent my platform to many needs and causes.”
Beauty pageants have long occupied a strange space in feminist conversations. It is easy to dismiss them as outdated and sexist. But for Clay and many other women, they have provided a platform to speak on and spotlight issues they care about. For Black women, they have provided ways to challenge stereotypical ideals of beauty. Beauty is not an empty symbol, and making beauty ideals more inclusive empowers women from all backgrounds.
Maybe that should be the true aim of feminism—providing space for the multitudes women contain. Women like Clay, who is both a veteran and a pageant girl, strong and soft, kind and fierce, an advocate and a survivor. Women do not have to be just one thing. They do not have to be bound by Eurocentric beauty ideals or Victorian ideas about what makes a woman. Clay and women like her are redefining beauty. So even if she never wins another crown, Najah Clay has a lot to be proud of.