The new Miss USA talks the relevance of HBCUs, inspiring young girls and military service.
By Maya A. Jones
The Undefeated, June 10, 2016 —
Deshauna Barber, Miss District of Columbia USA, stood smiling among the crowd of thousands in attendance. After Miss Georgia USA, Emanii Davis, was announced second runner-up, the Miss USA pageant dwindled to two contestants: Barber and Miss Hawaii USA, Chelsea Hardin. The women held hands — poised and graceful on the outside, a bundle of nerves on the inside — as they took measured steps to the center of the stage.
The announcement: “Now, one of you is about to become our new Miss USA.”
Barber, 26, stood tall, facing Hardin in her shimmering, floor-length custom Sherri Hill gown. The two women locked hands with each other and shared words of encouragement, followed by a warm embrace. With bowed heads and closed eyes, they waited — for what felt like an hour-and-a-half, Barber said — to hear host Terrence J announce who would be crowned Miss USA. All went silent except for the dramatic music that heightened the intense curiosity in the room. Barber took the opportunity to give herself a pep talk.
“I kept saying to myself that no matter what happens when he says this next state or next sentence, you’re beautiful and you’ve done everything you could to be here. Just humble yourself and make sure you understand if the name isn’t yours, that you’ve accomplished enough just being here.”
“Miss USA 2016 is … “
The pause lasted nearly 10 heart-pounding seconds before Terrence J uttered the words Barber couldn’t believe she was hearing.
“District of Columbia!”
And then there were tears.
The tears of joy flowed down Barber’s cheeks as she stood in front of the cheering crowd. The tears flowed as she was handed flowers, given her sash and as the crown was placed atop her head. The tears refused to subside as she took her first walk.
Here stood Barber, the child of military parents — an Army Reserve officer herself, a graduate of Virginia State University, a member of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority Inc., and now, the first military member and the ninth African-American woman to be crowned Miss USA.
“It still hasn’t registered,” Barber told The Undefeated on Thursday. “I still sit here and I can’t even believe I’m Miss USA. In that moment, it was the shock factor. As soon as I was called in the top 15, everything became a blur after that. I wouldn’t say I blacked out but even the top 15, top 10, top 5, top 3, onstage question, crowning; all of it seems like I wasn’t even awake — like I was watching this happen but I wasn’t actually there when it was happening. It seems so surreal.”
What’s even more interesting is Barber’s background, which doesn’t include pageants until she was 19 years old.
Years ago, she was approached by a woman in Target, where Barber worked, who asked if Barber would be interested in competing in a pageant. Barber’s knowledge of competitions and pageants were limited. She had never watched a pageant, and what she did know about them came from the 2000 comedy Miss Congeniality, featuring Sandra Bullock.
Barber and the woman met up again at Starbucks the next day, where she was greeted by a “foot-tall stack of pageant books.” Barber was eventually convinced that this is something she could pursue. Three months later, she entered her first pageant.
“It became a serious one-year hobby,” Barber said. “I think I fell in love with it mostly because of the fact that both my mother and father were in the Army, my household didn’t have many girly girl activities like painting our nails, dressing up and doing our hair. I really didn’t get a chance to get in touch with that girly girl side, so competing in pageants helped me get in touch with that glamorous side I always wanted that wasn’t really in my childhood.”
Barber, who now works as an IT analyst for the U.S. Department of Commerce, continued to compete while in school, working and balancing her command position in the military.
One of the most hectic times came last year, when Barber was crowned Miss District of Columbia in December. At the same time, she was in school to earn her master’s degree in computer information systems.
“I’m really big on time management, and I think that’s another discipline the military taught me,” Barber said. “I have a real hour-by-hour planner. Last year was really bad because I literally had to plan out 30-minute intervals of what I was doing each and every day to balance working, my master’s degree and my command position in the military, so time management is the biggest thing that you can have to be successful.”
Barber spent five months prepping for the Miss USA pageant. Her routine consisted of drinking plenty of water — at least 2.5 liters per day to maintain her skin’s natural glow — exercising, carefully picking her custom dress and attending interview classes to help her nail the onstage question, whatever it would be. This time, it so happened to be a military-themed question.
Now that she’s settling in to her new role as Miss USA, Barber plans to focus on raising awareness about breast and ovarian cancers, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder care for veterans and bringing soldiers home from overseas. As a graduate of a historically black university (HBCU) and a member of a black Greek sorority, Barber also hopes to showcase why these colleges and organizations are as important today as they were when they were established.
“When people say HBCUs aren’t relevant, it really bothers me because it feels as though they don’t historically understand what the purpose of a historically black college or university is,” Barber said. “HBCUs were built and created at a time when African-Americans weren’t allowed to attend predominantly white institutions, so it’s big for me to make sure we discuss these things, especially considering the fact that there’s so much history at these HBCUs.
“Attending Virginia State University was one of the best decisions I could’ve ever made. If anything, it built up my confidence as an African-American woman because I’m surrounded by African-American women that are all pursuing the same dream, that are all focused on their education and even the course that we took — African-American history and things along those lines — there’s so much in-depth power and culture that comes out of these universities.
“It’s very empowering to be at a school filled with people that look like you. It’s important to obviously attend whatever university you want to attend, but I definitely want people to understand the history of these historically black universities,” said Barber.
She is ready to take on the responsibilities her role as Miss USA will bring, and hopes she can inspire other little girls along the way.
“I would tell [little girls looking up to me] to continue to look into the mirror and appreciate what you see in your reflection,” Barber said. “Understand that you are beautiful. I’d tell them to continue to chase your dreams, continue to jump into these industries where you don’t normally see our faces. Feel empowered. Believe in yourself. I can go on and on about things I’d like to say to little girls that I wish someone had said to me when I was younger, and that’s just to know that you’re beautiful inside and out.”
Maya Jones is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a native New Orleanian who enjoys long walks down Frenchmen Street and romantic dates to Saints games.