Sunday, Nov. 13, The College of William and Mary’s Student Assembly hosted the College’s first cultural pageant, putting a spin on the traditional beauty pageant by showcasing students of color and their various talents. Featuring an interactive audience experience, the night was full of music, dancing and laughter. Two students took home the shimmering crowns as the winners of the event at the end of the night.
Shauna Scott ’23, the primary organizer of the event, further outlined the vision for and purpose of the cultural pageant.
“We want to highlight the individual, similarly to beauty pageants, but we want it to be more inclusive,” Scott said. “This is why we are taking away limitations when it comes to talent, stripping the gender correlation with beauty, and allowing the dress portion to be any outfit. Beauty pageants hold an extreme amount of limitations for contestants, especially income-wise. This is also why the event is free to all viewers. We wanted to put inclusivity as the focus in all aspects.”
Scott also discussed how the pageant sought to challenge beauty standards and promote inclusivity.
“We are also not focusing on sophistication because that term usually coincides with Eurocentric beauty,” Scott said. “Minority individuals, especially Black men and women, must reach extra heights to look ‘sophisticated.’ Whether it is straightening your curls, wearing makeup, or changing your dialect, sophistication can be out of reach. We embrace individuality in all forms regardless of whether that identity meets the ‘sophistication’ requirement.”
Because of these unrealistic beauty standards placed on minority individuals, Scott advocated for the creation of more safe spaces on campus.
“Overall, representation matters,” Scott said. “Everyone deserves to see someone who looks like them on stage, regardless of their background. That was our goal, and we hope the College promotes more events to do the same.”
The hosts of the Cultural Pageant, Janeé Thomas ’25 and Kyle Lewis-Johnson ’25, worked to establish this safe space throughout the night by showcasing culture, performing comedy and interacting with the audience. They also explained how the pageant is structured and guided the audience through each event.
The pageant was divided into three sections: interview, talent and dress. In the end, the winner was chosen by four judges. The judges included the acting Associate Dean for Student Affairs and Academic Support Arielle S. Newby, the Muscarelle Museum of Art’s Director of Engagement and Distinguished Artist-In-Residence Steve Prince, assistant professor of History and director of the Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation Jody Lynn Allen and the Dean of Students’ Graduate Assistant Monique Williams.
However, the event was ultimately driven by the contestants themselves.
First up was psychology major Jai Jones ’23 from Roanoke, Virginia. During the interview portion, Thomas and Lewis-Johnson presented a mix of fun culture-related questions and more serious questions intended to provide insight into the contestant’s personality and beliefs. For the last question of her interview, the hosts asked Jones what the word “culture” meant to her.
“To me, being culture truly just means being true to who you are and to where you come from, acting with pride in that no matter who you are around, no matter where you may find yourself,” Jones said in response to the question. “And just going off of that, just taking up as much space as you need to and just happily taking up as much space as you deserve, really.”
In the next category, talent, Jones chose to sing “Need U Bad” by Jazmine Sullivan which had become one of her favorite songs of recent.
Finally, for the dress category, Jones entered the stage in a soft pink dress, posing under matching pink lighting.
“The dress that I wore was simply one that made me feel physically confident, but it was also one that I hadn’t been able to wear yet outside of trying it on in my room when I first bought it,” Jones said when describing the intentionality behind her outfit. “I thought the pageant was as good a reason as any to bring it out of my closet.”
After Jones was Anya Ford ’24, a neuroscience major on the pre-med track hailing from Richmond, Virginia. During her interview portion, the hosts first asked her why she wanted to join the Cultural Pageant.
“I just feel like I’m a great representation of the culture, like I’m always myself… so I’m here to represent the culture for all my people,” Ford said.
For the talent category, Ford performed a praise dance. Ford also expressed how the song contained a message of looking past the stresses of life and realizing everything will be okay, and she described the deeply personal meaning that praise dance has to her.
“I chose to praise dance because it is truly a talent I hold dear to my heart,” Ford said. “When I was younger, my mom wasn’t able to afford to put me in cheering or professional dance like I wanted to be, but in fifth grade I began praise dancing and never looked back. After seeing the lives I impact, and also how it gets me through tough times, I will forever display my talent when possible in hopes of allowing people to see God’s vision through me, and not only that, but I also hope to touch the hearts of people who aren’t even religious.”
Afterwards, Ford explained her selection for her outfit, which consisted of a black skirt, chain and dark blazer.
“One thing about me is I truly enjoy dressing up and feeling confident,” Ford said. “I pretty much picked out what I was confident in, but the blazer was definitely the main character, and I just built the outfit from there. I am not a girl that is comfortable in heels. I’m a sneakers girl but I also wanted to give dressy but fly for the pageant and I feel that I accomplished that.”
The third contestant was Amaya Lane ’23, a biology major from Aldie, Virginia. In her interview, the hosts asked Lane to talk about her passions.
“Honestly, I’m passionate about people,” Lane said. “For me, God is a big thing, a big person in my life. I love to sing, that’s one of my favorite pastimes… and just being able to be my authentic self, regardless of what’s around me. That’s one of my passions. If I can’t be myself, then what am I doing?”
Following the interview, Lane showcased her vocal talents with a performance of “Mirage” by Alex Vaughan. She also explained the meaning behind the song and why she loves to sing.
“The song is about a woman who gets almost in a trance-like state over a guy who seemingly is supposed to be the greatest guy, who then does her wrong,” Lane said. “I have been singing since the age of three, and I chose this song as I like the beat and the story the artist is telling. Singing is my way of expressing myself and it’s my peace time. I typically sing to show my love to and for God or the things he’s blessed me with. I also sing as a hobby or to relate to other people.”
For her outfit, Lane wore a cotton long sleeve shirt with denim jacket, black leather pants and Jordans.
“I chose this outfit based on my shoes, and I wanted to choose an outfit that I felt confident in and showed my personality,” Lane said.
The next contestant was William Tatum ’23, who is majoring in studio art and is from Hampton, Virginia.
In the interview, Lewis-Johnson asked Tatum what he would want to tell his younger self given the option to rewind time.
“I think it’s hard to embrace the idea of myself, of culture, of everything,” Tatum said. “And if I had the chance to talk to my younger self, I’d tell him to embrace that with every fiber of his being, ‘cause that’s what makes you you, and no one’s gonna do it for you.”
For their talent section, Tatum presented a slam poem entitled “Hair” and described his thought process in authoring the piece as well as what the performance meant to him.
“Writing has been a new medium for me to explore, and I thought the subject matter fit the purpose of the pageant perfectly — unless you’re bald, sorry,” Tatum joked. “Hair has been a big part of my life and my expression of self. I think in a way, this performance was my first time acknowledging that and the journey my hair has gone on.”
William wore a sweater over a collared shirt during the fashion segment.
“I was on the phone with my partner a few hours beforehand, and she helped out with my fashion portion fit, but I think it felt like me,” Tatum said. “I like streetwear vibes mixed with academia style. It makes for an interesting subversion of preppy, well dressed clothes mixed with comfy, non-conforming vibes. I think defiance of social norms is always a necessity. It’s for the culture.”
Following Tatum was Amanda Reece ’26, an English major from Newport News, Virginia. Thomas questioned Reece about what she would do in life if she didn’t have to worry about money.
“I really like to write, but also, I’m a very creative person, so [I’d] probably just spend my life writing and playing an instrument or singing,” Reece said in response.
For her talent, Reece played “Moonlight Sonata: The 1st Movement” on the piano. Until this event, she hadn’t performed musically in years due to loss of motivation and grief associated with music.
“My former conductor had then passed away last October, and I couldn’t stand to play music anymore,” Reece said. “Once I got to the College, I saw all these musical opportunities waiting for me. The common [area] in my hall had a piano, so I just started learning to play. The piano was always his thing, so I decided ‘why not make it my thing too?’ The performance connected me to him, and before he died, I made a promise to him that I wouldn’t give up on music or performing. Now, I can say I never broke that promise.”
For the fashion portion, Reece wore a white dress and sneakers.
“The dress that I was wearing was the dress I wore when taking my senior portraits,” Reece said. “It reminded me of a time before college when life was a bit simpler. As for the sneakers, they’re from my nana. She’s always been an important part in my growing up, so I was paying homage to her.”
Kaleisha McPherson ’23, an anthropology major from Pensacola, Florida, was the last contestant to grace the stage.
Upon entering the stage for her interview, Lewis-Johnson asked McPherson to define the glue that holds the Black community together, to which she jokingly answered as “grandparents and mac and cheese.”
In the following talent portion, McPherson impressed audiences with an energetic rap performance complete with two outfit changes throughout.
“I just wanted to have fun and bring as much as myself on that stage as possible, and who is Kaleisha without a good laugh?” McPherson said, explaining the inspiration behind the performance. “The idea to rap came from my brothers because of how I refer to myself as ‘Wiz Kaleisha’. There was really no real inspiration to the outfit changes except wanting to surprise the crowd. In reality though, I do go through that many outfit changes in a day.”
McPherson then wore a blue dress with white fur lining and matching earmuffs for the fashion category.
“My outfit in the last half of the show was actually custom made by me for this exact event,” McPherson said. “I love fashion and coming up with/wearing things people have never seen before. Because it was getting colder I wanted to give ‘Snow queen’ as well as Y2K, and what screams the 2000s like denim?”
After all the contestants displayed their personalities and talent, Scott thanked the crew that helped organize the event, and the crew gave her flowers in return.
Finally, the hosts revealed Ford and McPherson as the winners, but that wasn’t the end of the event.
Before closing, Thomas previewed a surprise segment to come after the announcement of the winners.
“Maybe we have a whole lot more to show because I’m wrong when I say that the best is awarded,” Thomas said. “I think talent is awarded.”
Each contestant was then given a sash befitting their personality: “Most Charismatic” for Jones, “Most Passionate” for Ford, “Prettiest Smile” for Lane, “Eccentric” for Tatum, “Benevolent Heart” for Reece and “The Biggest Personality” for McPherson.
At the event’s conclusion, all the contestants expressed thanks to the organizers of the event and hope to continue this new tradition at the College.