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

Culture

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

Culture

Why Whiskey Should No Longer Be Categorized As “A Man’s Drink”

I walk into a room full of men and I know exactly what they're thinking: "What does she know about whisky?"


I know this because many men have asked me that same question from the moment I started my career in spirits a decade ago.

In a male-dominated industry, I realized early on that I would always have to work harder than my male counterparts to prove my credibility, ability and knowledge in order to earn the trust of leadership stakeholders, coworkers, vendors and even consumers of our products. I am no stranger to hard work and appreciate that everyone needs to prove their worth when starting any career or role. What struck me however, was how the recognition and opportunities seemed to differ between genders. Women usually had to prove themselves before they were accepted and promoted ("do the work first and earn it"), whereas men often were more easily accepted and promoted on future potential. It seemed like their credibility was automatically and immediately assumed. Regardless of the challenges and adversity I faced, my focus was on proving my worth within the industry, and I know many other women were doing the same.

Thankfully, the industry has advanced in the last few years since those first uncomfortable meetings. The rooms I walk into are no longer filled with just men, and perceptions are starting to change significantly. There are more women than ever before making, educating, selling, marketing and conceptualizing whiskies and spirits of all kinds. Times are changing for the better and it's benefitting the industry overall, which is exciting to see.

For me, starting a career in the spirits business was a happy accident. Before spirits, I had worked in the hospitality industry and on the creative agency side. That background just happened to be what a spirits company was looking for at the time and thus began my journey in the industry. I was lucky that my gender did not play a deciding role in the hiring process, as I know that might not have been the case for everyone at that time.

Now, ten plus years later, I am fortunate to work for and lead one of the most renowned and prestigious Whisky brands in the world.. What was once an accident now feels like my destiny. The talent and skill that goes into the whisky-making process is what inspired me to come back and live and breathe those brands as if they were my own. It gave me a deep understanding and appreciation of an industry that although quite large, still has an incredible amount of handmade qualities and a specific and meticulous craft I have not seen in any other industry before. Of course, my journey has not been without challenges, but those obstacles have only continued to light my passion for the industry.

The good news is, we're on the right track. When you look at how many females hold roles in the spirits industry today compared to what it looked like 15 years ago, there has been a significant increase in both the number of women working and the types of roles women are hired for. From whisky makers and distillers to brand ambassadors and brand marketers, we're seeing more women in positions of influence and more spirits companies willing to stand up and provide a platform for women to make an impact. Many would likely be surprised to learn that one of our team's Whisky Makers is a woman. They might even be more surprised to learn that women, with a heightened sense of smell compared to our male counterparts, might actually be a better fit for the role! We're nowhere near equality, but the numbers are certainly improving.

It was recently reported by the Distilled Spirits Council that women today represent a large percentage of whisky drinkers and that has helped drive U.S. sales of distilled spirits to a record high in 2017. Today, women represent about 37% of the whisky drinkers in the United States, which is a large increase compared to the 1990s when a mere 15% of whisky drinkers were women. As for what's causing this change? I believe it's a mix of the acceptance of women to hold roles within the spirits industry partnered with thoughtful programs and initiatives to engage with female consumers.

While whisky was previously known for being a man's drink, reserved for after-dinner cigars behind closed doors, it is now out in the open and accessible for women to learn about and enjoy too.

What was once subculture is now becoming the norm and women are really breaking through and grabbing coveted roles in the spirits business. That said, it's up to the industry as a whole to continue to push it forward. When you work for a company that values diversity, you're afforded the opportunity to be who you are and let that benefit your business. Working under the model that the best brand initiatives come from passionate groups of people with diverse backgrounds, we are able to offer different points of view and challenge our full team to bring their best work forward, which in turn creates better experiences for our audience. We must continue to diversify the industry and break against the status quo if we really want to continue evolving.

While we've made great strides as an industry, there is still a lot of work to be done. To make a change and finally achieve gender equality in the workplace, both men and women need to stand behind the cause as we are better collectively as a balanced industry. We have proved that we have the ability to not only meet the bar, but to also raise it - now we just need everyone else to catch up.