The crown is certainly bigger -- and in some ways, so is the stage. In the Miss America Pageant system, the national title is as far as a contestant can go. But when Stephanie Barber of Fayetteville competes for the Miss USA title on Nov. 29, she has a shot at an international experience. The winner of the Miss USA Pageant -- which will this year be held in Tulsa, Okla. -- goes on to vie for the Miss Universe crown.
Founded in 1952, the Miss Universe Organization is "a global, inclusive organization that celebrates women of all cultures and backgrounds and empowers them to realize their goals through experiences that build self-confidence and create opportunities for success." Some 10,000 women internationally compete every year in the Miss Universe, Miss USA and Miss Teen USA events, which, organizers say, "prioritize the importance of being involved and giving back through a dedicated international platform of charitable partnerships. As leaders and role models within their communities, our delegates and titleholders affect positive change through volunteering, fundraising and advocacy."
If Barber wins Miss USA 2021, she will become the second Miss USA from Arkansas. Terri Utley of Cabot was crowned Miss USA in 1982. Northwest Arkansans might also know Savannah Skidmore, a University of Arkansas law student who stepped in as Miss Arkansas in 2016 when Savvy Shields of Fayetteville was crowned Miss America and returned to the stage to win Miss Arkansas USA 2019.
"Savannah was one of the first people I met after being crowned," Barber says. "We have not had the chance to speak in-depth yet, but we are planning on meeting up soon. I really look up to her, especially since she is also pursuing a career as an attorney and placed top 5 at Miss USA."
Barber says she grew up in a Dallas suburb with parents Fred and Alice Barber, but she has family roots in Siloam Springs and has "dreamed of being a Razorback for as long as I can remember."
She is a recent graduate of the University of Arkansas, where she received a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and political science. While obtaining her degrees, she was a member of Zeta Tau Alpha, president of the Pre-Law Society and was a campus tour guide. She was one of the top 71 graduates honored as a Senior of Significance by the Arkansas Alumni Association.
"I always loved the UA because of the environment and people," she enthuses. "I remember visiting for the first time when I was 15, and despite it being a rainy day, I fell in love with the beautiful campus. I saw how eager the students and professors were to talk about how much they loved the community and school. I still remember the day I was accepted; it was a no-brainer decision for me!
"As a child, I always enjoyed dancing and being on stage, so if you had told me then that I would end up a complete nerd whose dream was to become an attorney, I would not have believed you," she adds.
Barber says she discovered the Miss USA Organization when she was 17 through Instagram.
"I 'followed' a Miss Teen USA titleholder and admired how she carried herself and spoke with confidence," she remembers. "I attended a small high school, so I decided to compete as a 'Teen' contestant as a way to get outside of my comfort zone. I had no idea what I was doing, and although I was a bit of a mess that first year, I left so inspired and determined to come back better the following year. I knew I would end up in Arkansas, so becoming Miss Arkansas USA was always the goal when I started pageantry five years ago."
This year's competition "looked a little different" because of the pandemic, Barber says.
"Instead of having it spread out over a weekend, we competed in all areas of competition in one day," she recounts. "It started with one-on-one interviews with the judges. They asked me various questions stemming from my experience growing up with dyslexia to bungee jumping while studying abroad in South Africa. All the contestants competed in a preliminary competition, where we modeled swimsuit and evening gown, and based on those scores, I joined the top 12 contestants in the final competition. Our previous scores were erased, and we re-competed in swimsuit and gown. The top five then answered two on-stage questions.
"For me, the on-stage questions were the most challenging," she admits, "because I have less experience with that part of the competition, and we do not know what questions we will be asked. I wanted my voice and purpose to be heard through my answers, and I was lucky to get two questions that I felt confident answering and could share my heart through.
"I like to joke that my only talent is writing 20-page research papers in 24 hours, so I doubt anyone would want to watch that if I competed in the Miss America system!"
Although the Miss USA system doesn't ask contestants for a "platform" issue they'd like to discuss, Barber has no doubt what hers would be.
"Growing up with dyslexia was challenging for me, and I was insecure about my academic abilities for most of my childhood," she says. "I had incredible parents, teachers and tutors who pushed me to overcome my dyslexia. While I was in high school and volunteering in an underserved school, I was awakened to the reality that not all students have the same access to educational opportunities that I have had. That didn't sit well with me, and I have worked with literacy organizations ever since. As a college student, I founded the first collegiate chapter of Reading Is Fundamental at the University of Arkansas. I already worked with literacy and educational programs in Arkansas as a volunteer, and I saw an opportunity to encourage my fellow university students to pour into the next generation of learners.
"I plan on staying very busy this year," she adds. "My primary goal is to use my resources and network to help establish Reading Is Fundamental chapters at colleges and high schools across the state. I am also working on 'literacy kits' to give to students that promote book ownership and reading. In addition, I hope to speak and read at schools in all 75 counties in Arkansas. I also hope to spend some time talking to educators and policymakers about what programs and resources we can improve upon in our state to make reading resources readily available to students and teachers.
"I would be thrilled if I won Miss USA, or even Miss Universe, and was able to take my platform to a larger audience. I firmly believe that access to books and literacy resources makes our country and our world economically and socially better."
"I have worked with hundreds of wonderful young women, and very few leave such an imprint on your heart like Stephanie Barber," says Lisa Dean, a pageant coach based in Dallas. "I have known Stephanie since she was 16 and have had the honor to work with her and mentor her for the past six years. In that time, I have seen her grow into the amazing woman that she is today. She is a woman of substance."
Miss Arkansas USA
To find out more about the Miss Arkansas USA competition or book Stephanie Barber, visit missarkansasusa.com.