No One Way to Lead

By Serene Singh


From the perspective of an American Rhodes Scholar Oxford PhD Student


If you met me five years ago on this day, I was giving a speech at my state speech and debate championship mocking things that are somehow not “outdated” even today. My list included crocs, refried beans, and… pageants. Truth is, I just took in what those around me felt negatively about and the reasons they felt that way, and adopted them as my own. In fact, I was the first to buy crocs when they first launched and I recall trying to dress up as refried beans for a Halloween party once. Pageantry still seemed like a lost cause to even me.

So, naturally, when I was invited to a pageant as a high schooler, I decided to attend. I thought it would be a great way to come up with new jokes for my next debate tournament.

Walking into the Miss Colorado Teen pageant, I fully expected myself to be rolling my eyes all weekend long. Instead, I vividly remember - for the first time in my life - feeling deceived by what I “thought” I knew about an activity. The small glimpses I caught from television programs of pageant titleholders stumbling through complex political questions did not, in any way, represent what I was seeing firsthand.

Like most kids with diverse backgrounds, eurocentric beauty standards and notions of femininity constantly challenged my confidence and self-esteem. It didn’t just hinder my sense of belonging with my peers, but also what I thought I was capable of. I still remember what one of my peers in pre-K told me: that because of my different features, my Sikh faith, and my uncut hair, I should go back to my "country" and stop trying to “pretend” to fit in. Over the years, I internalized many iterations of those comments from various individuals. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that those comments stung for years.

Now, I represent the very country I was told so many times growing up was not "mine." It is something I still think about every day.

At my Rhodes interview, my district secretary asked me: “Serene, convince me that pageantry does not objectify women.” I gave the most honest answer for my experience: pageantry never taught me how to be “beautiful,” all of us are already beautiful. What I gained from pageantry is the ability to be confident in my own beauty, unique gifts, and passions.

My definition of leadership evolved through my journey as a titleholder. It came with privilege and responsibility - a responsibility to pass on what I learned, to make tangible change, and to fight a fight I knew many people would discredit and disapprove of. In essence, a journey that started in 2013 with one decision to just “try” led me to become a national leader in a domain I never thought I’d be connected to.

And this is the recurring issue I face as a leader in a unique domain like pageantry: so much time is spent defending the activity itself, I am rarely able to discuss the impact I am able to have because of it.

Truth is, I never wanted to be an ambassador for an entire activity that is a part of the lives of millions of women across the globe. I wanted, however, to be an ambassador for change. Somehow those two became more intertwined than I ever expected, which all comes back to our prejudices, biases, and prejudgements.

In 2016, I started that leadership journey by establishing a nonprofit organization aimed at providing mentorship, self-esteem tools, and skills to build self-worth in women survivors. Today, that organization continues to impact and empower hundreds of women across the world. In speaking to girls across the world about the challenges they face, that has meant publishing a children’s book to help kids embrace their insecurities and failures, a lesson I had to learn through an activity like pageantry - but not every kid might have to. It has meant gaining self-defense training so girls in a village in India can become safer, and more independent.

I couple argumentation skills from the debate world with presentation skills I gain from pageantry and I see how that unique intersection helps me with the students I teach public speaking to every day. Where my in-school learning experiences provide the knowledge to challenge misogyny and stereotypes in the world around me, pageantry gives me an outlet to actively defy what feminism really meant - in the South Asian community, at home, and in my own reflections. I combine my passion for fashion and my love for my Punjabi heritage in ways that help me showcase the vibrancy of my culture. I, everyday, become more comfortable with differences that once terrified me.

In the Oxford community, people are always fascinated to see this “second life” I have within the pageantry industry. I hear, “but you’re so smart, why would you waste your time on that stuff,” or “why be a part of that when you want to be a Justice one day?”

My answer is simple: 1) being “smart” is so much less about doing what you're expected to do, and so much more about what you believe is necessary to do. 2) there is something about this community that emphasizes multi-disciplines, multi-talentedness, multi-everything. These are the activities that brought me to this enriching community, and I know they will continue to serve me in unimaginable ways as I embark on my biggest dreams, even as a Justice.

To this day, I still see people asking how a brown woman could possibly represent this nation, how a Sikh can be "American," or even why "identity" is a relevant conversation anymore. For me, being a titleholder and leader in this domain means making people uncomfortable. Uncomfortable with the idea that women like myself can represent something unique to an audience that historically, has rarely seen diversity. Uncomfortable with the idea that women can be leaders in different, unexpected, and unconventional ways. Uncomfortable with the idea of an Oxford PhD student also being a national pageant queen.

But that is just a reminder of the work we need to still do - no longer something that breaks me, but rather, inspires me to keep building for the next generation.

Until we change how we frame leadership, who we “revere” as leaders, and how we INSPIRE young people to be truthful with their passions and dreams - we will stay stuck. Stuck in comfort, stuck in bias, stuck in boring.