When I kicked off this Quaz nearly two years ago, the goal wasn’t to line up one big-named celebrity after another and ask questions. No, it was to find folks who’ve had unique/interesting/different/noteworthy existences, and pick their brains. The name itself—Quaz—stands for “quasi-famous,” and while some of the 94 interviewees have been, indeed, famous, many are simply riveting folks with great stories.
Like Alexcia James.
Alexcia is the reigning Miss Black Iowa and two months away from receiving her Doctorate of Nursing Practice from the University of Iowa. I stumbled upon her one day on Twitter, and immediately thought: A. Who knew there was a Miss Black Iowa?; B. This reeks of Quaz.
What I found was a woman who would make any parent proud; an intelligent, insightful 27-year old who approaches life with both confidence and wisdom. I say this sans one iota of exaggeration: Should my daughter wind up like Alexcia James, I’d be elated.
Here, Miss Black Iowa talks about why, in fact, we have a Miss Black Iowa; what it’s like waving and smiling from a float and whether pageants should ever exist. Alexcia loves New York, Rascall Flatts and the food at Cowboys, Monticello, Arkansas’ finest seafood buffet.
Alexcia James, you are officially crowned Miss Quaz 2013 …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Alexcia, I’m going to start you with one I’ve longed to ask someone who has competed in pageants. I have a daughter, and I hate the idea of her entering beauty pageants, because it seems so, well superficial. I know they ask a couple of dull questions, but mostly it seems to be about beautiful women in bathing suits and evening gowns. Tell me, Alexcia, what—if anything–I’m missing. And what have you gotten out of competing in pageants.
ALEXCIA JAMES: Jeff, the idea of bathing suits and dresses is a common misconception of the pageant community. Unfortunately, the world only sees the glitz and glam of pageant life. I think one of the most important things to do before entering any pageant system is to research their history, their purpose, and what they stand for. For many pageant systems the final product that you see on your television is after months of preparation, winning in your local community and continuing to be of service in that community. For pageants such as the Miss Black USA pageant, the entire process takes place over a week. This includes preliminary competitions in talent, athletic wear, evening wear, and an interview process, all while learning choreographed numbers for the production and doing public appearances and community service endeavors. The interview process is actually one of the most important components of the competition. In many pageants, it accounts for the largest percentage of points. During the interview the judges get to know who you are as person, what your goals are, and what you aspire to be in life. As a potential winner, you will be representing the organization, to do that you must be more than pretty face. The talent portion is also worth a significant portion of your total score. Most people have practiced, their talent for months perfecting every aspect of it. The bathing suit and evening gown are worth only a small percent, essentially you can score perfect in those categories and still lose the pageant if you are not well prepared for your talent and interview categories. The goal is to be a well rounded contestant.
J.P.: Before learning of you via Twitter, I didn’t know there was a such thing as Miss Black Iowa or, to be honest, Miss Black Anything. My question: Why? I come from a very small, white, conservative town, and I can hear these people saying, “Why does there have to be a Miss Black Iowa? There’s no Miss White Iowa.” Blah, blah, blah. Alexcia, how would you explain it to these people? What’s the reasoning?
A.J.: Again, very common question and, to some extent, I can understand the discontent that surrounds the title. In looking back, the Miss Black USA organization was formed to showcase the heritage and diversity of African-American women throughout the world. The African-American woman comes from many different shapes, sizes, backgrounds, shades, but is still multi-talented and intelligent. Often times, African-American women have a difficult time competing and advancing in mainstream pageant systems. For example, looking at the Miss USA and Miss America systems, there are typically very few minority women represented. I do not think it is because we are any less capable or beautiful, but our beauty may be seen as different in their eyes. No offense to those systems, of course. I think they all have a place in the pageant scene.
J.P.: Here’s what I know about you, Alexcia. You’re 25, you’re from Monticello, Arkansas, you attended the University of Iowa on an academic scholarship and you were once crowned Little Miss Drew County. But those are mere facts. Alexcia, what has been your life path? As in, how did you get here?
A.J.: Well, I am now 27 and will be finishing my Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) program in May of this year. I graduated from Monticello High School as a teenager and decided to come to Iowa to start my nursing education. During my undergraduate years, I was a resident assistant, part of the Black Student Union, president of Voices of Soul gospel choir and part of University of Iowa Association of Nursing Students (UIANS).
I graduated with my BSN in May of 2008, struggled a bit to get started in my nursing career and finally started working at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in February 2009. I began graduate school in 2010, thus I’ve been working full time and going to school full time for the past 2 1/2 years. With my Miss Black Iowa role, for a while I was also completing community service activities with various organization and making public appearances on the weekend. So, needless to say, this girl has been busy, but life is slowing down a bit now as I prepare for graduation and look out for the next phase of my life—Alexcia James, DNP Adult Gerontological Nurse Practitioner.
Other than that, in my free time I love to read, listen to music, go to movies and travel.
My goal is visit somewhere out of the country after graduation, I love learning about different cultures. I think it would be amazing to visit Africa, Italy, Germany, Paris or even Istanbul.
J.P.: So I was reading the Miss Black Iowa website, and it sounds like you took over the position with some, well, controversy. The site says: “On Saturday, April 2, 2011, Alexcia James, a graduate student at the University of Iowa in the Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) program, assumed title of Miss Black Iowa USA 2011 with enthusiasm and humility. She will finish the yearlong reign first started by RayVynn Schauf of Waterloo. As of April 1, 2011, due to noncompliance with the Miss Black Iowa Year of Service Guide and noncompliance with other performance obligations, RayVynn Schauf is no longer the 2011 Miss Black Iowa USA Delegate/Spokesperson.
According to pageant rules, in the event that a delegate is unable to fulfill her role, the 1st runner-up assumes the responsibility of the crown.” Alexcia, save for the time Vanessa Williams posed for Playboy, I’ve never heard of a pageant winner unable to finish her term. What happened? And how did you feel stepping in? Mixed emotions? Excited? And did you have to compete again for 2012?
A.J.: Honestly, I was not given information on the exact reasons she was asked to resign. I simply received a call saying, “You understand as first runner-up, if for any reason the current winner is unable to fulfill the duties of her crown, you would be asked to take on the role as Miss Black Iowa?” I was speechless at that moment, but I said yes, and the rest is history. I had three months to prepare for the national competition in Washington, DC, and immediately began doing appearances and community service activities. I was excited, but also a little uneasy because during the initial competition the current winner and I had become friends. I did reach out to her on a few occasions to see how she was, but honestly, I have not spoken to her since I took over the role. I did not have to compete in 2012 and a decision was made to have me continue my reign for the next year as well.
J.P.: I’m gonna ask one I’ve never heard asked during the Miss America telecast. On your bio page, you say, “If you dare to dream the possibilities are limitless.” But how can you tell that to, oh, the kid growing up in the slums of Gary, Indiana, single-parent, no money, crap education? Or to someone living in poverty in the Ukraine without a morsel of hope? If we’re being 100% honest here, doesn’t “daring to dream” sometimes get smacked back to earth by harsh, cold, cruel reality?
A.J.: Unfortunately, the world can often deal you a horrible hand. However, I believe immensely that your dreams are your own, no matter your circumstance. You must never let anyone or anything take that away from you. Call me an optimist, but I truly believe that hope is what keeps the spirit going when the body is weak.
J.P.: I’m an agnostic Jew … pretty sure God doesn’t exist. Tell me why I’m wrong.
A.J.: I cannot tell you that your beliefs are wrong. I can simply say that I believe there is a God and I believe in him with all my heart. I try very hard not to be judgmental of the beliefs of other people. One of the great things about our country is that we have the right to believe in what we want.
J.P.: As we speak, you’re a graduate student in the Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) program. What is it about nursing that appeals to you? What’s the calling? And when did you first realize it was what you wanted to do?
A.J.: It is hard to put into words what it is about nursing that I love so much. I guess the simplest way to say would be the feeling of the connection you get from helping people at a vulnerable moment in life. For many people, one of the most challenging times in life. I also get the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life and I think it keeps me grounded. I first realized it was what I wanted to do my senior year of high school. Up until that point, I was sure I wanted to be a heart surgeon. During that year, I was hospitalized with an atrial septal defect that had to be repaired. One nurse, in particular, was amazing. She was very knowledgeable and seemed to really care for me and my mother. I appreciated her so much, it dawned on me at that moment that was what I wanted to do with my life.
A.J.: Greatest moment had to be receiving my Bachelors of Science degree in Nursing. I was the first person in my family to go to college and obtain my degree. My entire family drove up from Arkansas to be here; it was a great moment for me and for all them that helped me get there.
Hmmm—when I go back and think about it the lowest moment was looking for a job after graduation. I wanted to be a big shot and move to Chicago. I was actually hired at Northwestern hospital in Chicago in August, but due to financial problems I was unable to find a place. I ultimately got a call saying the position was no longer available. I was devastated, but in the end it all worked out. I had some great friends here in Iowa and a wonderful support system that took me right on at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. See, God does exist.
J.P.: I’m guessing, by now, you’ve participated in some parades. Whenever I see pageant winners in parades, waving and smiling, I always—without fail—think, “Dang, smiling and waving that long seems horribly exhausting.” Am I wrong? And, besides that, what, exactly, does Miss Black Iowa do?
A.J.: Yeah, the parades can get very long. At some points your lips start quivering and you have to look down for a second to relax them. The parades are also a ton of fun, especially with the kids. Usually, the little girls are so captivated by the crown, you can see the innocence and sincerity in their eyes when they look up at you. The Miss Black Iowa organization is partnered with the American Heart Association. I participate in many events educating people about heart disease.
I have spoken at conferences, participated in health fairs, spoken on panels … you name it. It helps that I work as a cardiac nurse in my profession. I think it has really given me an opportunity to have a more hands-on approach. Outside of that, I’ve also been on radio stations to discuss topics within our community. I am also called on to serve as a judge in other competitions or just show up and help out.
J.P.: How do you think having an African-American president has changed race relations and racial identity in this country? And have you felt the impact?
A.J.: I think having an African-American president has broken some barriers and changed stereotypes commonly associated with racism. Years ago, the idea of an African-American president was unthinkable. President Obama has instilled hopes and dreams into a community, he speaks to a future generation of people where race will not matter. Unfortunately, that time is not today, but I think each day our nation challenges racism and allows equality to prevail we come one step closer.
• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Yes! On a plane ride to Las Vegas, the turbulence was horrible. I was sure there was something the pilot was not telling us, however, no one else seemed to be alarmed. I’m a bit of a scaredy cat.
• Five reasons to make Monticello, Arkansas his/her next vacation destination?: I actually wouldn’t recommend that—no offense to my hometown. I love it for giving me a stable environment to grow up and mature. My family still lives there so it will always be home for me. However, there is absolutely nothing to do there. There’s plenty of open field for hunting, the local movie theatre, and a bowling alley. There are a few great restaurants—my favorites being Cowboys, a local seafood buffet, and the Breaker Drive Inn, a local fast food spot.
Other than that, your options for entertainment are limited. It’s a good rest stop on your way to somewhere else.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): the smell of roses, Usher, Bill Clinton, stethoscopes, roasted vegetables, the number 23, snow, the Iowa women’s volleyball team, Steve Jobs, Ridley Scott, RayVynn Schauf, Heavy D, the banjo, New York City, strawberry milk, Lou Gehrig, iPhone 5: The smell of roses, New York City, stethoscopes, iPhone 5, Bill Clinton, RayVynn Schauf, Steve Jobs, Usher, Lou Gehrig, roasted vegetables, Ridley Scott, Iowa Women’s Volleyball, Heavy D., strawberry milk, the number 23, banjo, snow.
• Where is your crown at this very moment?: In a case in my bedroom with my sash.
• Five things you carry in your purse?: iPhone, lip gloss, hand sanitizer, planner, wallet.
• Where did the name “Alexcia” come from?: My great-grandmother’s name was Lexi. She passed away when my grandmother was 5. My mom wanted her name to be a part of mine, thus everyone in my family calls me Lexi.
• Would you rather date a guy with perpetual tuna fish breath or a pack-day smoker?: Hmm, hard decision because I hate both. I think I’m gonna go with tuna fish breath because you’re killing yourself with the toxins from cigarettes. Plus, I can start keeping a pack of gum in my purse.
• All-time favorite song lyric?: Don’t laugh, but Rascall Flatts—Broken Road chorus: “Every long lost road, led to me to where you are, others that broke my heart, they were like northern stars, pointing me on my way, into your loving arms, This much I know is true, that God blessed the broken road that lead me straight to you.” I know I’m a sappy, hopeless romantic.
• Worst pick-up line you’ve ever heard?:
Guy: Hey, you look beautiful.
Me: Thank you.
Guy: You know I can levitate? I can take you to another level.
• I don’t want my son playing tackle football. He loves the game. What should I do?: Tough decision. I understand the concern for his safety. However, if it is truly his passion and talent it may be something to consider. Sports generally instill a sense of discipline and teamwork. Maybe he can just be the kicker.