When someone says, “Girls always have platforms that are surfacey. I wanted to reach deeper and talk about affecting systemic change on a national level,” you know you’re not talking to your average beauty pageant contestant.

Vernicia Elie, 25, came to Forest Park by way of Oak Park by way of Trinidad, where she grew up (the family moved to Oak Park in 1995). The Oak Park and River Forest High School graduate is now at Northwestern, finishing a master’s degree in education.

Not your typical candidate for the Miss Illinois Pageant.

“I was definitely out of my comfort zone,” she admitted. “I wanted to challenge my assumptions about that system. I knew very little about it. And I also wanted to promote ideas on equity and access to education. I wanted to be a different kind of role model.”

Apparently it worked. She didn’t become Miss Illinois, but her fellow contestants voted her “Miss Amity” (formerly “Congeniality”).

Elie (pronounced EE-lye) earned her B.A. degree at Oberlin College in Ohio, majoring in African-American and Comparative American studies with a

concentration in history and “identity development.” Not surprisingly, she focused on the migration of people of Caribbean descent.

After college, she worked for CollegeBoard, which runs the SAT tests. It was her “introduction to the policy side of education.” Several of her co-workers had attended the Northwestern University School of Education, which led her to Evanston to study higher education administration and social policy. She has a flexible plan for the future (“plans don’t always work out”) but would like to end up someday in the federal Department of Education, where she hopes to affect systemic change.

“My real objective,” she says, “is to change the world.”

A fish out of water

At the Miss Illinois Pageant, Nov. 21 at Chicago’s Hyatt Regency Hotel, she recalled, “I felt like a fish out of water at first.” Most of the other 77 contestants were 18 to 20 years old. Since they had plenty of time to wait backstage, Elie asked many of them what they planned to do with their lives. Most indicated modeling, entertainment, media or popular culture.

When she told them what she planned to do, their eyes glazed over.

“Maybe it was me,” she said, “so I broke it down.” She told them, “I want more kids to get into college and have more resources available to them no matter where they live. And I want to encourage politicians to create laws that enable that.”

She enjoyed the challenge of communicating her ideas to everyday people, she said. While they tried to wrap their minds around her concepts, she also taught them dances, goofed around and generally kept things light. She made connections and had fun.

“It was my first pageant, but I wasn’t tense,” she noted. “I was one of the few who wasn’t.” Some were devastated when they didn’t win because they’d been working for years toward this goal. Elie didn’t really expect to win, so she ended up doing a lot of consoling.

Many of the girls will try again, but Elie probably won’t. For one thing, it’s too expensive. The overall cost was approximately $2,000. A thousand goes to the pageant itself to help fund the weekend’s production and the winner’s trip. The other thousand goes for outfits, makeup, hair, nails, even “glue to keep the swimsuit stuck to your butt.”

It was an education.

She raised about $1,800 from 38 family members, friends, classmates and co-workers. At the outset, she sent them an e-mail outlining what she believes in and wanted to accomplish. “I hope to challenge normative beauty standards (I’ll be rocking my braids and other natural styles and my curves remain the same); be a role model who doesn’t just ask for world peace but has plans to change the world; tell my immigrant, low-income and first-generation success story; promote awareness of inequities throughout all sectors of education; [and] encourage a systemic approach toward improving our education system.”

She also told them her career goals necessitated “being accessible to a variety of racial, ethnic, social and economic groups.” The pageant crowd, she said, “is a new venue for me, but just as important.”

Some of the girls she met seemed to approach the pageant as a kind of sport, but they were serious about it. “It wasn’t just glamour. It was also their causes. I learned not to categorize.”

The numbers were down from the usual 150. The economic downturn was likely a factor in preventing some from competing.

Being resourceful

Since Elie tends to be frugal, she took her mother (who works as a teller at Community Bank of Oak Park River Forest) and friends along on shopping excursions “to help me spend money.”

She forced herself to buy $80 shoes instead of the usual $30 shoes, but she declined the French manicure and the hair extensions that almost all the other girls wore.

“I wanted to stay as true to myself as possible,” she said, “and not change myself for the pageant.” She was the only contestant with braids.

“I only spent $20 on my hair. I became resourceful.”

All the contestants had tans, which they worked on every day at the tanning booths. And they all used various lotions.

“You need to shimmer onstage,” she noted.

It was fun, but also a learning experience, she said. You can’t compete if you’ve had an abortion or been pregnant, and the organizers warned them about putting the wrong kind of photos on Facebook. Motivational speakers stressed the importance of the impression you create, that you’re representing not just yourself but your community.

Elie said she might consider doing it again if she were younger. Her advice to those who want to try is “stay true to yourself and understand why you want to help people so you can come out of your shell and promote a cause. You need to know yourself. If you’re unsure, it’s going to show. Don’t spend all that money if you don’t have a clear sense of why you’re doing it. Otherwise, it’s a waste.”

She wonders if this year’s winner will be able to stay true to herself. “The pageant owns you,” she observed. “They’re looking for the next Miss USA. Does she have the look or will they give her the look?”

At one point, the judges asked the contestants if they’d rather be rich, funny or smart. The top five girls all said “funny.”

“I’m already funny and smart,” Elie said. “I’d like to be rich to pay for the important things that need to be done in this society.”

Elie describes herself as “extremely confident” and says the experience helped reaffirm the importance of being accessible to all people.

So she can change the world.

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