Alt pageant challenges beauty stereotypes

Miss Plus America’s advice: ‘Rock what you’ve got’

Thandisizwe Jackson-Nisan
Thandisizwe Jackson-Nisan Photo courtesy of Thandisizwe Jackson-Nisan

Full-figured ladies, not to mention admirers thereof, may rejoice as increasingly there’s recognition and appreciation, as evidenced by the success of Miss Plus America, an alternative to mainstream beauty pageants since 2002. Hailing from North Minneapolis, the current reigning queen is Thandisizwe Jackson-Nisan.

She is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in African American studies and in pre-law. In fact, she helped found what she calls Umoja Academy, where she’s an instructor of performance art.

She’s also a professional home-ownership adviser, aiding owners to avoid foreclosure, counseling renters to prepare for home ownership by becoming knowledgeable borrowers. This provides an invaluable service considering the controversy that has raged over banks taking advantage of hopeful homeowners who unwitting fall into the ready-made pitfalls of predatory lending.

Jackson-Nisan’s academy presently is raising funds to send students to Ethiopia in December. It’s “for a study trip. [Ethiopia is] believed to be the cradle of civilization.”

Indeed there is speculation that Ethiopia is where the actual Garden of Eden was located. Nisan looks at the proposed field trip as part of an extraordinary opportunity to provide innovative education, part of which, she notes, is “molding youth [who] can become mentors themselves when they’re ready. Even a sixth-grader can have as a mentee as student in kindergarten.”

Asked how she came to cultivate not only beauty but brains, Jackson-Nisan defers, citing a formative role model in her mom, Jewelean Jackson, who happens to be the pageant director for Miss Black Minnesota. “My mother is a scholar. She always believed in learning and kind of passed that down to me.”

The apple evidently not falling far from the proverbial tree seems to be a family trait. Jackson-Nisan started Umoja Academy with her sister Julia Sewell. “It was, back in the day, my brainchild,” says Jackson Nisan. “I’ve always been super creative,” including the performance piece that serves as her Miss Plus America platform, “I am NOT my hair,” taken from the Indie Aire song.

“It’s always been one of my favorites. ‘I am not my hair. I am not my skin. I am the soul that lives within.’ To me that is empowerment,” Jackson-Nisan explains. “However you rock your hair, it’s your hair. It belongs to you, but you don’t belong to it. And it shouldn’t be the basis for whether you get a job or not, win a pageant or not, if a boy thinks you’re cute enough to ask on a date or not.

“These are some of the struggles young women go through on a day-to-day basis,” continues Jackson-Nisan. “It’s about being empowered, being confident no matter what size you are, how tall or short you are. Whatever you have, it’s important that you rock it.”

Thandisizwe Jackson-Nisan relates that, certainly, she’s pleased with her success, but she is nagged by drawbacks you wouldn’t associate with this day and age of social enlightenment. For instance, she hears such comments as, “‘Oh, you are cute to be a big girl.’ I have had feedback both written and verbally from [pageant] judges that said, ‘Oh, you’re so beautiful. You should try to lose weight.’”

And, of all things, skin shade: “’You should put on lighter [facial] foundation,’” she says she’s been told. “It hurts. It hurts to hear that about yourself, especially when you believe your skin color is beautiful, that every color is beautiful, and the melanin that you happen to have more of is just as equal to the light or to the White color.”

In June, she hosted a fashion show at Redeemer Lutheran Church in North Minneapolis. “It went great.” She adds with enthusiasm, “[It was] the first thing I did [when] I got my title — the first big event of that caliber [pertaining] to Miss Plus America. People came through. I felt the love. I hope there are many more to come to continue on, that’s for sure. Because, in the industry, two, four, and six, those are the [clothing] sizes. It can be a struggle to fit into society’s norm of what size you’re supposed to be.

“I want to bring to light our 12s, our 14s, 16s and 18s, 20 and plus.” After all, don’t all ladies deserve to shop for figure-flattering attire? More shows are in the offing.

“[I want] to make the most of this time and have at least two more fashion events before I give up my title next summer.”

Whoever succeeds Thandisizwe Jackson-Nisan has considerable shoes to fill and something to live up to. As a woman of, so to say, substance.


Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.