When Deshauna Barber took her final walk as Miss USA while wearing her natural hair, it was a surprise to everyone — including her peers. In her own words, the active military captain explains the touching reason she wore her Afro and reflects on her challenging year as the 2016 winner. The following was told to Khalea Underwood and edited for length and clarity.
Road To Royalty
Pageants really aren't that big in the Black community. I honestly didn’t watch any and wasn't exposed to them until I was randomly approached at Target when I was 19 [by the late Leslie Morton-Schober, a former Miss USA contestant]. She said, "Hey, you look like you could be the next Miss USA." The only pageant I had seen was Miss Congeniality at that point. It took a few months for her to convince me to do it. I'm glad that she didn't go down another aisle — otherwise I wouldn't be here today.
Even after getting into pageantry, I never thought that I would win Miss USA. The last time that they had a Miss USA who was my skin tone was Kenya Moore in 1993 — that was a long time ago. But that's something that comes with life in general, not just pageants. You're put in a situation where you might have to be that trailblazer. You might have to break that trend in your own way. I thought it was beautiful that I could represent those darker chocolate girls that don't always see themselves on the national stage. I see a lot of women of color that have competed and won, but it felt good to represent dark-skinned Black women.
Beauty's Ugly Side
After winning the title, I had people say I was using the military card for my win, along with other hateful things. And while competing for Miss Universe, I had to deal with colorism internationally. A lot of people in different countries considered me ugly because my skin is darker. The darker you are, the poorer you are — or whatever the case may be.
Competing in Miss Universe and dealing with the fans of competitors in other countries got tough. I had no idea how much racism I would experience from an international standpoint. They'd send me monkey emojis, and say that my skin looked like a poop emoji and tag me in photos with apes... I didn’t speak about it, because I didn't want to deter anyone from competing. You want to make it seem like everything is happy and hunky-dory, but there are a lot of very challenging moments.
The internet has become such a hateful tool that people use. That's why it's so important for me to have confidence in myself and to push through. I could have let the words of these people really get to me. When you're doing something that people aren't used to, some people just won't like you. I can’t change who I am to make someone else comfortable. If they’re ignorant, then they're ignorant. There's nothing I can do to fix that.
Her Final Walk
My mom always pushed me to wear my natural hair, and I would always would say no. I didn't think I would be crowned Miss USA if my hair was in its natural state. She'd still push me, because she thought they'd love it. And she was right.
I knew that the pageant would be airing on Mother's Day, and what better way of paying tribute to my mom? [Editor's note: Barber's mom passed away in August 2016, two months after her win.] It was a huge secret that we kept from production and staff, so everyone onstage saw my Afro at the same time — they were just as shocked as the audience.
When you're crowned with a look, then that's the look you're expected to maintain. A lot of people in the pageant world are still very old school. They believe in a traditional look, a traditional Miss USA. [The organization] is trying to, in my opinion, open up that world.
So, when I said I wanted to wear my natural hair, they were jumping for joy. I appreciate them for that — [but] I didn't want to stretch it too much. I wanted to take baby steps. If I take a small one by showing my natural 4c hair, the next girl will take one, and then we'll ease our natural hairstyles into the pageant community. Because in all honesty, I don't think that the pageant community is ready for a braided-up Miss USA.
Passing The Crown
People don't realize that I'm the one who told Kára she should wear her curls onstage. Kára is my good friend. D.C. is very small, and the pageant community is even smaller. We've competed against each other for years. So when she came to my Miss Universe sendoff party with her hair curly, I looked at my director and said, "I think she should wear her hair like that." Kara was hesitant at first. But after some convincing, it separated her from the group. People could relate to her being comfortable with her natural hair. I think there's something beautiful about that.
When they called D.C. this year, I almost had a heart attack. I crowned her when she won D.C., and I was so excited to crown her when she won Miss USA. That moment felt so good not only to embrace diversity of races and backgrounds, but diversity of appearances and hair textures, too. For me to walk out in my natural hair and to crown someone with natural hair broke down walls. It opened up a world for the girls who feel they need to straighten their curls and add long extensions.
I want to continue my motivational speaking career and raise awareness, whether it's [regarding] race relations or gender equality or pay equality. I do plan on focusing on mental illness in the military, too.
When I was Miss USA, I could discuss those things... I just had to be careful about how I voiced them and figure out how to phrase things without people getting offended. I'm going to have to stay in that lane as a soldier, as I have a service to my country, but I do have intentions on saying what I feel. Now that my tenure is up, it’s all to the wall now. I don’t need to restrain myself. Now is the time to break down barriers.
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