Exclusive: Former Beauty Queens Shed Inhibitions (And Clothes) For Empowering New Campaign

Former Beauty Queens Shed Inhibitions (And Clothes)

For Empowering New Campaign

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Miss New Jersey USA 2016, Jessielyn (Jessie) Palumbo may be a stunner, but she is as down to earth as they come. She, along with five former beauty queens from the Miss USA pageant have joined together for a campaign that is designed to shift perceptions of pagaentry, and empower young people to celebrate their bodies, flaws and all.

“I love pageantry so much and so much positivity has come from it, but there’s also a negative side, because once you are in the spotlight you are automatically criticized by people who don’t know you,” says Palumbo, a Wayne native. “There’s a lot of cyber bullying from anonymous sources.”

Among the insults hurled Palumbo’s way by these unnamed offenders were that she “looked like a bird,” and that her nose and chin were too big. “I never noticed these things until others pointed them out,” says Palumbo, 25. “My pageant sisters were also criticized, told they were ‘too heavy, too skinny, or had ‘too big of legs.” I really got to the point where enough was enough.”

Palumbo, who is also an artist and photographer, decided she would counter the swirling negativity with a body-celebrating campaign, which would show her and a handful of pageant sisters stripped down, sans Photoshop, or elaborate makeup and hair styling. “There is no definition of beauty, because it is so subjective. There is no ideal form. I figured the most vulnerable way to show this is by being completely naked and using zero airbrushing, showing things like stretch marks, cellulite and everything that comes with being a woman. It’s natural and it’s beautiful.”

Jessie Palumbo

Participants in the campaign, called the This Is Beauty Project, include Miss Rhode Island USA 2016, Theresa Agonia; Miss Vermont USA 2016, Neely Fortune; Miss Connecticut USA 2016, Tiffany Teixeira; Miss Delaware USA 2016, Alexandra Vorontsova; and Miss Louisiana USA 2016, Maaliyah Papillon. Each woman joined in order to help inspire young women to be confident in their own skin, as well as to take ownership of the looks-shaming they’ve endured as public personas.

“An Instagram troll said I was ‘as big as a whale,’” Papillon told SWAAY when explaining her reasons for being a part of the campaign. “Although it hurt to read those words, it made me even more aware of how the world needs to see multiple images of beauty to eliminate the stigma that ‘only one size is acceptable.’ I wanted to prove to myself and others that it’s okay to embrace your beauty.  I love my body, curves and all and wanted other women to have a visual example of what that looks like.”

Neely Fortune

Agonia had her own  reasons for joining the campaign.

Tiffany Teixeira

“Family, friends and colleagues have told me that I’m too skinny; that seeing bones isn’t healthy,” says Agonia. “Yet, despite the criticism, I lead a healthy lifestyle and love who I am. I did this photo shoot to remind people that ‘skinny-shaming’ is not okay. I did this photoshoot because I want to live in a world that allows women to be multi-dimensional. We cannot continue to be depicted as beauty or brains. We need to be able to become CEOs while feeling confident in how we look, and not being questioned for our intelligence.”

The shoot, which took place mid-July in a studio in Bay Head, N.J., was meant to be as natural as possible. There was minimal styling, natural lighting and barely there makeup by Angelica Alberti. Although not a requirement, many of the women decided to get completely naked, in order to make a bigger statement. Palumbo, who once worked as Onilne Photo Editor for Maxim, took all the pictures, including her own via automatic shutter release.

“The photoshoot was one of the most liberating moments of my life,” Teixera told SWAAY about her experience. “It is so hard to be a woman because people expect you to be perfect; not too thin because then you’re ‘boyish’ but not too thick, because then you’re ‘fat.’ [The message is] be sexy but not too sexy because then you must be a slut, but if you’re too conservative then you’re a boring prude. Oh and you also should look like a Victoria’s Secret model all while being able to drink beer and throw back pizza like the guys. It’s impossible to keep up! And after so long of trying to be society’s version of a perfect woman, I finally said, ‘Screw it, I’m perfect just the way I am!'”

Papillon and Teixeira

To further add fuel to the body-loving fire, the shoot highlighted the body parts women were most insecure about, or were mocked for. For Palumbo, it was her “angular nose and chin,” for Agonia it was her thin waist and for Teixera it was her curvy backside, which she had been told to shrink.

“These photos, in my eyes at least, have given me the opportunity to give the most artistic middle finger to the modern beauty standard,” says Teixera. “For the first time I really didn’t care that I wasn’t hiding behind Photoshop. If there is a dimple in my bum, or a wrinkle on my face, then so be it. I mean, in a perfect world I would walk around with a Valencia filter on me at all times, but that is not reality, and we need to stop making it seem like it is. It took me 26 years to love me, and I couldn’t care less about any other opinion.”

For Vorontsova, participating in the photo shoot allowed her to face her feeling that in some way her body held her back, as she was told by others she was too “thick” to make it far in the Miss USA pageant.

“I wanted to let go of feeling like on camera I needed to look absolutely thin. I have an athletic body type and that’s not what every person would consider ‘in’ at the moment,” she says. “I love my body, however, there are certain angles of myself that can at times make me cringe. No part of my body should ever make me feel like I need to hide it from the world. Untouched and unedited, this shoot made me embrace all parts of myself.”

To be sure, another one of Palumbo’s goals was to combat the pageant stereotype, which she says can undercut a woman’s intelligence and put only her looks in the forefront. “People assume they are all about makeup teased hair, and looking perfect,” says Palumbo. “The truth is we have natural bodies, curves, rolls, and everything. We want to give young women some confidence, and show them that we are there for each other. We want girls to find their niche and to feel empowered.”

Looking to the future, Palumbo says she hopes to amplify the campaign, bringing in more beauty queens and doing more shoots, in order to reach more young ladies. “So many girls I see on social media feel the need to filter to the point where they are sometimes unrecognizable, which shows you the pressure they are put under,” says Palumbo. “Hopefully when they see our pictures they will realize they are completely normal, and that everyone has a little imperfection.”

Alexandra Vorontsova

“I feel like especially with everything that is available [in terms of plastic surgery procedures], millennials think they can get nip or a  tuck, get their lips done, or whatever it is to fit a form and look like Kylie Jenner.  If not, think they can fix themselves with Photoshop, but I want to know what’s wrong with being yourself?”

-Jessie Palumbo

When asked about diversity in the pageant world, which is often criticized for upholding a rather narrow view of ‘beauty,’ in terms of diversity, Palumbo is optimistic that change is already happening.

“I know the Miss USA system is slowly going there but they haven’t really broken the mold yet fully with body types,” says Palumbo. “Ashley Graham has been a Miss USA correspondent and she really pushes the message of body acceptance. The last couple of years, there has been much more racial diversity. Even so, I want more, including transgender contestants, a variety of body shapes, and more unconventional types of beauty.”

Theresa Agonia
Belisa Silva

Belisa is an editor with more than 10 years of experience. Prior to SWAAY, she worked as freelance writer, covering lifestyle, fashion and beauty industries. Belisa was a Market Editor at Women's Wear Daily for five years, where she interviewed rockstar business women like Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Lopez and Iman. Belisa also contributes to Cosmetic Executive Women, where she highlights female executives making an impact in the beauty industry.

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