Miss Black USA’s mission is to empower other black women
Myja Gary’s vision of herself as representing the world on a larger stage became a reality in 2021 when she was crowned Miss Black USA. The Chesterfield County, Virginia native’s crowning came after several years that combined a focus on academics, journalism and corporate communications. Energetic, enthusiastic, inquisitive and confident best describe Gary, whose future is hers for the asking.
Gary, 27, who earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in 2016, and a master’s degree in public relations and corporate communication from Georgetown University, entered her first pageant completion at age 17.
Kimberly Fields, a freelance journalist based in Raleigh, North Carolina, recently spoke to Gary about her pageant experience, donning the crown of Miss Black USA 2021 and being a corporate communications manager at Zoom, where she prepares integrated communication plans and is a strategic adviser for the company’s leadership team. Along with her pageantry commitments, it’s a mystery how she manages to not let her crown slip. Gary tells us just how she does it.
Kimberly: How exactly did you get started in pageantry?
Myja: I started maybe right before college; I entered a pageant. The system is the USA National Miss Pageant. I did that and, I can’t remember whether it was for Miss Virginia… I don’t even remember how it worked, but I remember placing as the third or fourth runner up. So, I started there and honestly I don’t know what motivated me then. But when I got to college at North Carolina A&T State University, that’s when my interest really picked up and I participated in several pageants. From there I competed in and won the Miss A&T Pageant, and later I competed in the Miss HBCU Pageant. From there I competed in the Miss Black USA Pageant. Since my first competition, I knew it was something I wanted to continue to do because I’ve always loved what they represent. Also, once you win, you are heavily involved in service and in your community. You are pretty much a representation for your community
Kimberly: What was that experience like, entering your first pageant?
Myja: Scary (laughs) I was scared to death. It was one of those things where I think, you know, I got into it and I was super excited and then seeing everything that it took; just being on that stage and performing was scary, but it also was exhilarating. That was just such an exciting moment for me. I think that fear kind of turned into my passion because, although it was a scary thing, I just love being on that stage, you know? And I love public speaking. That is a passion of mine and in pageantry a lot of it is speaking. So I love that. I am very confident in my public speaking skills, so it gave me a platform to become a better public speaker and to show off my public speaking skills. But yes, it was a scary time that fueled my passion.
Kimberly: Right, I understand that. I get it! Did you grow up watching pageants?
Myja: Yes and no. it wasn’t something my family sat down and watched together, but it was something that I was into. Once I started getting into the beauty realm, into makeup, all things girly and feminine and I started seeing the Miss USAs and the Miss Americas, it’s all beauty, right? The makeup, the hair, they’re gorgeous, the blinging crowns and sashes. I think that’s kind of what intrigued me from there.
Kimberly: Do you have a favorite pageant that you used to watch or still watch?
Myja: I really love the Miss Universe Pageant. It’s after the Miss USA pageant, it’s a step up, but I love the Miss Universe pageant because all of the girls are very diverse. These are different countries, we aren’t just talking about the United States. These women are coming from Africa, the Philippines, and so many different countries and regions. That’s been my favorite pageant. It’s intriguing to see these women come from diverse backgrounds, but kind of share some of the same morals and values.
Kimberly: I agree. So, when you were mentioning the pageants you participated in and the titles that you’ve held, a great bit of them were African American based. Was that intentional that you applied to participate in Black pageants?
Myja: ABSOLUTELY! I think getting into pageantry I was kind of finding myself or finding my niche. Really discovering what I wanted to get out of it and how I wanted to be impactful, but yes, moving forward once I found that passion, it was absolutely intentional that I did things that were centered around Black women and the Black community. That is something that I stand for. That is my thing; empowering Black women. I remember this quote from Issa Rae, during an award show and she was asked who was she rooting for and she said, “I’m rooting for everybody Black!” (laughs) So that’s my thing, empowering the Black community, so it was definitely intentional.
Kimberly: Do you think that your participation in these pageants is empowering Black women?
Myja: Yes! And I say that because I think representation is so important. Representation matters. I think these pageants are relevant because it is up to us to tell our own stories. It’s up to us to create the narrative, right? We’re (Black women) so invisible in beauty, in print, on television, in pageantry, so I think it takes Black women to step up to these positions to be placed into these spaces and create our story and let other Black women know that this is possible. And I think sometimes when we do compete, and this is not a knock against any other pageant system, when we do compete, we often are the only Black woman, or we are the only Black woman from a particular area, or the first Black woman to win the title and that often is exhausting.
Kimberly: Yes, it is! Tell me more.
Myja: There is an impact that you have and a joy, a happiness that you feel when you are around women who look like you. You’re so conscious about, “Should I wear my natural hair or should I straighten it? Should I wear these Spanx or should I flaunt my natural body?” Those are things you think about when you compete in other pageants, but standing on that stage with other Black women everybody has natural hair, and everybody has similar body shapes.”
Kimberly: I completely agree with you. So, I can think of a few changes, but what changes have you noticed in today’s pageants and those of the past?
Myja: I think now it is centered around societal issues and it could be perspective because as a young girl, I’m not thinking about climate change and women’s empowerment. I’m thinking about a pretty sash and a pretty crown, and contestants’ beautiful makeup and beautiful hair. But now that I’m older and realize what they’re actually representing, I think about the societal issues and how I can make an impact. From the audience’s eye, we’re in this era where folks want to know what are you going to do for their community. What are you going to do to impact their communities? I definitely think it is more about the work now.
Kimberly: Indeed. Can you tell me a little bit about your journey toward becoming both Miss Black VA and Miss Black USA?
Myja:In pageantry and in this particular pageant system, there is an age cap and I was coming up on that age cap for this particular pageant system. I knew that I wanted to do this one more time before I became too old, as funny as that sounds. I wanted to do it one more time and I had goals for myself, I knew the issues I wanted to tackle, and coming in, of course I wanted to win, but I was always thinking about how I could make an impact whether I won or not. I became Miss Black Virginia and it was like WOW!
While I was Miss Black Virginia, I partnered with Do Something, a major nonprofit to collect menstrual products for women’s shelters. That was awesome for me. I organized a women’s leadership summit, the Women I.N. event series, for women leaders in tech, education, health, and marketing to come together and shed light and provide insight to other young women who were pursuing these particular careers. At this time, I was preparing for the national pageant to become Miss Black USA. I was working with my coach and again going into it I knew I wanted to win. I had my goal, I knew what work I wanted to do and I planned, I prepared, I practiced, I worked really hard and it happened for me, I am so grateful. Some days I can’t believe it that it really happened because this is my last year, I wouldn’t be able to compete again. The transition has just been so peaceful because these things were already destined, it just feels like it was destined.
Kimberly: The stride is always easy when the shoes are meant for you, right?
Myja: Right, exactly.
Kimberly: Talk about going out with a bang. Wow, I didn’t know there was an age cap to this, but how lucky are you to say I’m going to give this one last shot. You went for the last hoorah and came out on top twice. So that’s awesome. Can you tell me a little about your current role and the responsibilities you have?
Myja: I am the representation of the organization. My official title is Miss Black USA 2021. Above all, my biggest duty is to impact my community. Service, volunteering initiatives, women’s empowerment, positive representation, mentorship, all those things that kind of align with women’s empowerment and being the representation of an organization that celebrates and uplifts Black women. Another responsibility is to maintain strong relationships with our sponsors. So those folks who believe in the organization, the mission of the organization, the women who participate in the organization… they are donating, helping to fundraise, sending products and clothes, jewelry, resources and other items that we need to compete to be successful. So just maintaining a strong relationship with our sponsors is a major duty as well.
Kimberly: It sounds like it is a very exciting job to have and role to fulfill, but I could imagine that there may have been some challenges. Could you talk a little about any challenges that you have come across either prior to being crowned or thereafter and how you handled them?
Myja: I think one of my biggest challenges was fear. I think this is so common across the board especially when we talk about Black women and things that they are pursuing. I remembered when working with my pageant coach, her name was Ocielia and she is a former Miss Black USA, she would always tell me “whatever happens is going to happen. There is nothing you can do to stop it. So when you get on that stage, have no fear. Every step you take, every person you talk to, every judge you make eye contact with, every question you answer, every time you set foot on that stage, HAVE NO Fear.” And I really adopted that. Every time I would step on that stage I would chant to myself, “Have no fear. Have no fear. Have no fear,” and it really helped me to just be my best, do my best and kind of leave it all on the stage because at that point, I did everything I knew I could.
The second biggest challenge for me was having resources to do enough and understanding that we are still in a pandemic, we’re still in this virtual environment. But again reminding myself that everything I had was everything I needed to do exactly what I wanted to do to impact my community in the ways that I could with what I had and that was all that mattered. You’ve got to get creative in this virtual environment.