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On a recent visit back home down South, my niece told me in her sweetest Southern drawl, “Aunt Tonya, I saw a pic of you in the County Museum when you were the Strawberry Queen” Yes, I held the titles of:
Little Miss Chadbourn (the little town I grew up in) And……are you ready for this?

The Yam Queen


The Strawberry Queen


The Watermelon Queen


I know, it sounds more like a smoothie than a string of hard earned pageant titles.


Unless you grew up in the South drinking sweet tea and eating collard greens, you probably won’t understand.


During my Pageant days, I traveled across Virginia, Tennessee and North and South Carolina singing on stages, doing interviews, riding on top of my mom’s bright red Camaro in parades, participating in a watermelon seed spitting contests and all other sorts of shenanigans.


I won some and lost some. And in some of the Pageant winnings, in addition to earning a crown & sash, I was gifted scholarships which paid for most of my nursing school tuition.


Yet, when my niece mentioned seeing an old photo of me at the museum, well….


I laughed and cringed at the same time.


Maybe it’s because of the whole “Honey Boo Boo” stigma, or the thoughts of JonBenet Ramsey and the conspiracy theories around her murder. Perhaps it’s the sexualization of little girls that I don’t approve of or that I’m now so far removed from the pageant world. Whatever it is, it’s a part of my life I rarely think about ….and certainly don’t discuss.


Well, until recently…


It got me thinking about what being a Pageant Queen taught me about living a well-lived life.


Three decades and a lot of personal development later, I can now look back on my beauty pageant days and excavate the big lessons that it can teach us all.


There are some really fascinating parallels between my years as a Pageant girl and what I see happening with women in today’s society — competition, feeling less than, depending on our looks, wanting approval, just to name a few.


So, I thought I’d share with you the 10 lessons I learned from being a Pageant Queen:


1. Following your dreams is uncomfortable


On stage, my voice would tremble and I’d feel like I was going to vomit. I wanted to run, but the spotlight was on me, so all I could do is stand there and shake and smile. Eventually, it became my norm to go on stage and speak to hundreds of people, but I had to break through the discomfort to get to that place.


Every time I did it, I was scared out of my mind trying to hold a smile even though the corners of my mouth were trembling. I’d worry if the hundreds of people in the audience could hear the shakiness in my voice as I answered a question.


I remember the knots in my stomach as they called my name and I stepped into the spotlight to sing Liza Minelli’s “Cabaret.”


While I didn’t always win, the moment you hear your name not being called as the first runner up and being the only one left on stage indicating you are the winner was always an ecstatic feeling. All the hard work and practice paid off.


Most people procrastinate, eat and distract themselves from what they truly want simply because they don’t want to feel uncomfortable.


Instead of shrinking from the emotions, learn to feel them.


Show up. Do it anyway.


The worst thing that will ever happen when you’re going after your dreams is a feeling.
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2. People will judge you. Make peace with it.


In beauty pageants, people are paid to judge you. You get a score. The score is tallied and depicts the winner.


Life is a lot like that too! People are constantly scoring and judging you, without the paycheck. But, life isn’t a pageant (even though it may feel like one). In real life, you get to be a winner despite what others think.


The only way to avoid judgment is to lock yourself up in your house and never leave. Even then someone will probably judge you for being a hermit.


Expect to be judged. Because you will be, and you are.


When you expect something, you’re not caught off guard when it happens.


Plus, their judgments say everything about them and nothing about you. You are responsible for your own thoughts and judgments.


What do you think of you? That’s the judgment you should be concerned with.


People will judge you. Expect it. Let people be wrong about you.
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3. You will fail


I came in 2nd runner up three years in a row at the North Carolina Rhododendron Festival.


For three years, I practiced all year long and showed up only to get the same trophy each year.


However, I realize that along the journey, I met the most amazing people, learned more about myself and cultivated more confidence by continuing to get back out there.


In a recent interview with Sarah Blakely, founder of Spanx, I was fascinated hearing her talk about her relationship with failure.


At the dinner table, her dad would ask her, “What did you fail at this week?”


Instead of getting her cozy with success, he helped her become comfortable with failure. As a result, she wasn’t afraid of failure. It was something she walked towards, not backed down from. It was a sign that she was on the playing field of life, learning and growing. It’s no surprise that her net worth is over one billion dollars. That’s a billion with a “B.”


If you’re not failing, you’re not going after your dreams.
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4. Allow yourself to shine


I won’t lie:


It felt fabulous to dress up, walk across the stage and step up to a microphone. What I loved most was singing on stage — the costumes, self-expression and seeing people’s face smile in the audience. I loved to shine.


Now that I’m decades away from my beauty pageant days, I can say that it was a fabulous experience as it taught me to do things in the face of fear, how to create confidence and communicate with groups of people.


Maybe that’s why as an adult I still love dressing up on the stage of life every day, and as a professional coach, I enjoy using my voice to share a powerful message that inspires women to birth a new way of living and being.


Whether it’s on a stage, in the kitchen or around a boardroom table, notice where your heart comes alive and have the courage to stand in that spotlight — with your knees trembling, knots in your stomach and your chest pounding.


Eventually, you’ll grow comfortable there, but to shine you must be willing to feel the discomfort of showing up fully.


Feel the discomfort, but don’t dull your shine.
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5. People may leave. Let them Go.


During my pageant years, I lost friends. When you’re a young girl with an immature brain, losing friends is devastating.


I’ll never forget a group of my classmates booing my performance. I felt so much shame that I ran off the stage and cried for days promising that I’d never sing again. Of course, I did because I had committed to a show, but the passion of singing was replaced with shame.


A week after I won Strawberry Queen, I was cornered by a group of girls in the school bathroom and pushed to the ground. One of them said, “Stop thinking you’re better than us.” These were girls I’d laughed and eaten with. I thought they were my friends. I didn’t think I was better. I just wanted to belong.


I stopped pageants, singing and all the things I had enjoyed because I didn’t want to appear to be better than anyone. I didn’t want to lose anymore so called “friends”.


Success had become to mean that I wasn’t safe. So, I sabotaged myself often. If ever I outperformed on a test or felt like I was outshining another girl, I’d immediately apologize and try to prove how I wasn’t that special. I began to give into peer pressure — smoking in the same bathroom I’d been bullied in, sneaking out of the house for parties that involved a lot of drinking. running away from home…all because I wanted to fit in.


Looking back, I can see it clearly now: this is when I started to shrink in life.


Fear, not joy, began to run the show. In fact, I carried this behavior into my adulthood with excessive apologizing, dressing down, gaining weight and turning my back on my dreams.


I have learned from experience that you have two choices when it comes to your life: stay the same or evolve. If you choose the latter, people may leave. But, I promise you this: you’ll soon be welcoming in new faces into your life.


Instead of limiting yourself in hopes of other’s staying, trust that the wrong people will exit and the right ones will enter your life. The people who truly love you will stick by you, and the ones that only love a version of you that you no longer want to be will leave. It really is that simple.


People may leave. Let them go. With love.
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6. Be a Queen and Surround Yourself with Other Queens


Something magical happened each time they put a crown on my head:


I was a Queen. I stood taller, my confidence grew and I felt an immense pride in the young woman I was becoming. And, suddenly, I was with a different group of women — other Queens. We weren’t competing because we each had a crown.


We traveled to parades, events, and other pageants together. We’d stay up late at night in our hotel rooms talking about our dreams and fears. We cheered each other on, called each other for support and enjoyed being together.


As an adult, you don’t need to win a pageant to be a queen. Each and every day, you get to choose to put a metaphorical (or real) crown on your head — to believe in ourselves, show up even when it’s hard, to doubt our own doubt and to NOT let anyone take us off of our throne.


You have a choice of who you surround yourself with. Choose other true Queens — the ones who’ll lift you up, tell you to get your butt out there on the stage of your life, who will have the courage to tell you when you’re holding yourself back, love you even when you fail, see your success as inspiration instead of competition and who just want to enjoy this magical experience of life with you.


Be a Queen and surround yourself with Queens.
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7. Miss Congeniality Never Wins


In my experience on the pageant circuit, Miss Congeniality never won the crown. As an adult, I find this to be true in life.


I spent many years working hard to be the nice girl. It was not effortless. It was a full-time job that not only didn’t pay, it depleted my soul account.


I left my own path to go with the crowd. I worked hard to please others while letting myself down. I put my own desires on the back burner to not rock the boat.


I’d say “yes” to things I loathed to do and “no” to the things that I loved. I wanted people to like me SO bad. I wanted to be in the “in” crowd. If people liked me, then I could like myself, right? If people liked me, I could be a huge success, right?




It’s taken a lot of work for this Miss-Southern-please-every-one-nice-gal to get to a place where I operate from a place of being myself versus being who others want me to be.


I’ve learned that I can’t be a great mom if I’m trying to please my daughter. I can’t be an effective coach if I’m worried about my clients liking me. I can’t be my best self if my goal in life is to be liked by everyone.


You serve the world and yourself best when you stop trying to win Miss Congeniality and start being Miss You! That’s how you’ll win in your life.


If you own your own business, it’s almost certain that people will challenge, disagree and dislike what you’re doing. If you are trying to create health, there will probably be people (most likely family) that won’t like your new lifestyle. If you choose to go after a goal, there will be people in the peanut gallery offering you their opinion.


While I am all for kindness, I’m not for being nice to your own demise. The kindest thing you can do for yourself and others is be true to yourself and let others be who they are. Anything else is exhausting.


Miss Congeniality never wins. Focus on liking yourself, not others liking you.
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8. Jealousy / Envy is Toxic


When I was called out as 2nd runner up that third year at the North Carolina Rhododendron Festival, I became engulfed with jealousy towards the winner. I told myself that she cheated. She didn’t deserve it. And she was a terrible person.


The first truth was I didn’t deserve it (or I would have won), and I was the one acting like the terrible person. The other truth was, that secretly, I envied her — her talent, charisma, and ability to shine. That feeling ate at me for a year while she traveled the state sharing her brilliance.


Harbored envy only hurts you. Learning from your jealousy can ignite you.


That girl gave me a huge gift. She showed me areas that I wanted to grow and improve upon. She highlighted parts of myself that I wanted to let go and the doubt I needed to overcome. Her success paved the way for my own.


The very next year, after obsessing about this girl and studying her every move, I took what she had taught me and won my very next crown.


It’s quite normal to experience envy. But don’t tear down another person in an attempt to feel better about yourself. It doesn’t work. And, it only hurts you.


Instead, look at what she is showing that you want in your own life. Then, investigate where you’re holding yourself back and then go out there and create it for yourself.


These days, I tend to be on the receiving end of jealousy.


Most recently, someone commented on a Facebook post, “Bitch, you need to eat.” As someone who has been 70 pounds heavier than I am today and loves to eat, I found this comment laughable. I have been to hell and back around my weight and food issues. I am finally in a place where I am at complete peace around this area.


Her comment said everything about her and nothing about me. Plus, I refuse to let someone else’s opinion or insecurity cause me to spiral into a place I worked so hard to overcome.


If you’re on the receiving end of jealousy: You must understand that it’s not about you. You’ve triggered a deep desire or need in another person, and for whatever reason, she doesn’t see it as possible for her. Extend her compassion. Love her from afar.


Jealousy & Envy is toxic. Stay in your light.
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9. There is more than enough success to go around.


Unfortunately, pageants teach young women that one woman’s win is another’s loss. This mentality has created a female culture of constant comparison, competition, and cattiness.


Life, however, isn’t a contest. There aren’t judges (except the ones in our head). And one woman’s success doesn’t take away from yours.


Yet, when she thinks it does, things turn ugly. Here’s an example of how we women can go very wrong:


One of my clients was devastated when she discovered her best friend was talking about her behind her back.


“Okay Tonya, this sounds silly, like I am in high school — I don’t even want to say this aloud — but here goes: she said that I think I’m better than her.”


I had heard those words before.


“What do you make that mean about you?” I inquired


“That maybe I shouldn’t be so public about my success,” my client answered.


“Why is that?” I asked.


“Because it makes her feel uncomfortable,” she said.


Note to every woman reading this article: A woman’s success doesn’t make anyone feel uncomfortable. It’s the thoughts in that person’s mind that creates her feelings. Alternatively, if we choose to celebrate a woman’s success, seeing it as an example of what’s possible, you’ll most likely feel inspired and excited.


Don’t use a woman’s success to play the victim in your own life. She has taken nothing from you. She’s only showing you what’s possible.


If you want to see your life radically change, start celebrating other women’s success. Email her and tell them what you admire about her. Send her roses and tell her “Great job!” Celebrate her success with her and watch what happens in your own life. Life is truly like a boomerang. What you throw out comes back.


And, please don’t use your success as a reason to feel guilty. Instead, choose to feel proud of yourself. You’ve done the hard work. You’ve felt the uncomfortable feelings. You’ve overcome the doubt. You’ve shown up and taken the action.


There is more than enough success to go around. Let her success inspire your own.
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10. Your essence is everything

Kim was on the pageant circuit with me.

And I was mesmerized by her.

She grew up in a poor household and couldn’t afford the fancy dresses that most of the pageant girls wore. In fact, we were a lot alike. My mom handmade all of my pageant clothes because, like Kim’s family, we didn’t have the funds to spend $300 on a dress.

Yet, Kim had something bigger going for her: a deep desire to win scholarship money, a beautiful mind due to her love of books, and a confidence that clothes couldn’t create.

When she walked onto the stage, it didn’t matter that she was wearing a dress that her mom had found at the thrift store or that she had to find sponsors to pay her entry fee.

Her essence took everyone by surprise, especially the judges.

She owned her space, spoke with confidence, held her head high and shared with us her greatest beauty — herself.

I remember the day she walked away with a huge crown.

Kim taught me a very important lesson:

Your essence is everything. Who you are being, is far more important than what you’re doing.
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Which of these Pageant lessons is one that hardest for you to practice? How can you put it into practice this week? Which one do you feel like you have mastered?

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