Confessions of an accidental beauty queen
Girls' Life magazine|December / January 2021
In the middle of a stressful senior year, Aneesa Sheikh, 18, signed up for a state beauty pageant on a whim…and won. Now, as she competes this month for the Miss Teen USA national title, she reflects on how an unlikely experience uncovered her most authentic self.
By Katherine Hammer

“And the winner of Miss Michigan Teen USA 2020 is…Aneesa Sheikh!” Staring into the blinding stage lights and a beaming audience, it felt like I was dreaming. As former winners placed a crown on my head and draped a sash across my gown, the scent of the bouquet of roses in my arms reminded me that yes, this was *really* happening.

Let me say this right up front: I never thought of myself as someone who’d ever be in a pageant. My senior year, I was captain of the varsity figure skating team and captain of the debate competition squad. My makeup bag was basically three lip glosses and a mascara months past its prime. My closet is stuffed with sneakers, not sequins.

When I wasn’t doing school, sports or debate squad, I loved singing and songwriting and hanging out with my huge family. But, sadly, my schedule was so packed, I’d often be playing guitar in the car on the way to my before-sunrise practice sessions on the ice and doing my math homework on the bus to speech competitions. My life senior year was crazy, and tbh, super stressful.

One afternoon, as I was settling into a study session at a coffee shop, I looked up and there it was: a flyer to enter the Miss Michigan Teen USA pageant. I’d heard of the pageant before— a friend of mine from debate club had done pageants her whole life—but I’d never actually thought about being in one.

I was supposed to be focusing on advanced chemistry, but I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. It just sounded so fun, so girly, so cool. And, unlike skating, it would just be for kicks, no pressure to win or get to the next level. So when I should have been calculating the equilibria of insoluble salts, I instead found myself hitting send on my pageant application.

I didn’t tell a soul until the acceptance letter arrived in the mail a month later. I was *officially* going to be competing in a beauty pageant! Some people were happy (my friends all thought it was awesome) and others, not so much. A lot of people, including those I respected, expressed disappointment that I was “wasting my time” on something so seemingly frivolous or inconsequential.

But I noticed something in myself. For once, I wasn’t so concerned about the opinions of others. I wasn’t doing this because I felt like I had to. I was doing it because it just felt fun. I picked up my color-coded senior year planner, took a deep breath and crossed off some of my usual activities and penciled in pageant prep instead. There was no turning back now.

Studying up

A pageant is a competition, and that means you can’t just show up and expect to ace it without trying. Soccer players dribble and shoot on the practice field before a game, and actors hold dress rehearsals before opening night.

Except with a pageant, it’s a little different. Of course, there are skills to master (walking in high heels with perfect posture? Not as easy as it looks…), but the *real* test is in discovering what makes you, well, you.

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