By Monica Montgomery
Cover Photo by Brittany Grant
Stage Photos Provided by Jenny Waldon
Beauty pageants…. As you read that, what came to mind? In our politically correct climate, most people dare not say. We can admit that for “pageant women,” beauty is a way of life.
Atlantic City hosted the first Miss. America pageant in 1921. Pageantry has changed in the 102 years since bathing suit beauties took that inaugural walk down the boardwalk of Atlantic City, but not by much.
Even all these years later, the image of beauty pageant contestants is burned in the minds of every little girl. Tall, thin, gorgeous, and, let’s be honest, most of the time white.
In March of 2022, Arkansas crowned Arteja Stamps as its first African American Mrs. Arkansas International. This tremendous honor is no small feat, but Arteja, who has only been competing in pageantry for two years, says she was determined to take the crown because “I believe I’ve been called to be an advocate for those whose voices need to be heard. So, I use my crown as an elevated microphone.”
Arteja was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. After marrying her high school sweetheart, she relocated to Saline County, Arkansas, in 2004. She and her husband, Jason Stamps, have made a life and a home for themselves and their two daughters Sasha, seventeen, and Sahara, fourteen.
“There was some adjusting that had to be done in the beginning. Arkansas, specifically the area we live in, is very different from Chicago. But now I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” Arteja explained.
One of the significant differences Arteja says she has become accustomed to is being in the minority. According to the 2020 census, the racial makeup of Saline County is 87.9% White, 8.4% Black or African American, 0.6% Native American, 1.3% Asian, 0.03% Pacific Islander, 0.1% from other races, and 1.60% from two or more races. 5.1% of the population were Hispanic or Latino of any race (U.S. Census Bureau quickfacts: United States 2020).
“Everyone knows all the black families in my town. That’s just how few of us there are here,” Arteja says with a laugh. “I don’t have a problem with that. My issue is that, for some reason, we are treated as if we don’t have a say in what happens in our local community. As a citizen and a parent, there are questions that I believe need answers, but those answers aren’t readily available to me and people who look like me,” Arteja goes on to explain.
Why you might ask, would this thirty-eight-year-old professional, wife, and mother of two teens decide to enter the pageant world?
“Because I needed to make a statement, and I needed to be heard. In a world where social media is raising our daughters to think that beauty only looks one way, I wanted to set the standard for my girls. I wanted them and other young women out there to know that they can be their authentic selves, no matter what others think of them,” Arteja said confidently. “The other reason was that no matter what we think of pageantry, it opens doors.”
Arteja is passionate about helping the underserved. The way she’s doing that is with the F.A.C.S. foundation. F.A.C.S. stands for Fight Against Childhood Starvation. This program was officially birthed in 2018. The need came to her attention when she noticed food going missing from her pantry.
“I would have just gone to the grocery store, and things would be missing. I finally asked my youngest daughter Sasha what she was doing with a family pack of Oreos and a big bag of Cheetos. She broke down and told me that she wasn’t eating them herself. She said her classmates didn’t always have snacks at school, so she would share the food with them at lunchtime. I felt so bad,” she said. “We started by connecting with the school and providing snacks for the kids, and things grew from there.”
Today F.A.C.S. has four projects to help those who need a “little help sometimes.” Project 1: Project Feed a Family: This project is intended to help provide food during the Thanksgiving holiday. Project 2: Christmas Spirit – This project helps provide gifts and a little Christmas cheer to families in need. Project 3: SOS – This project helps people behind with their utilities. Project 4: Project Lifeline – This project is intended to assist families with small but essential monetary assistance—examples: Gas money, lunch money for children, or a Day Care bill.
Arteja, whose profession is as a training manager, began to see gaps in support for and information for people of color in her area, and she wanted to do something about it.
“Before I became Miss. Arkansas International, I campaigned for Ward 3 Aldermen in the city of Benton,” Arteja explained. “I knew going in that there was no way I would win, but my reason for running was again for my daughters. They needed to know that they have a voice, and if they don’t advocate for themselves and see things through, they give that up. The powers that be in this area needed to know that black women vote too, and despite popular belief, we will show up for the race!” she said with great conviction. “I wanted to shake up the status quo. I wasn’t trying to flip the table over; I just wanted to give it a good shake.”
Never having participated in pageantry before, Arteja decided in 2019 that a state title would give voice to her plight and that of so many others. Confidence, conviction, and ambition pushed Arteja to give it all she had while being realistic about the challenges she would face.
Although the world of pageantry has come a long way, the worldview of what is considered beautiful still has some evolving to do. The pressure for the average woman to be seen as beautiful is heavy, but when the job title you are aiming for literally has the words “beauty queen” in it, the pressure to achieve can be soul-crushing. Arteja’s message to young women in the industry is simple. You have to be enough without the crown to bear its weight.
“I tell people all the time I am in no way a ‘pageant girl.’ My daughters started competing at the same time as I did, but we each had our own reasons. I had to make sure they were secure in who they were before they started because it can be a lot. I am honored to say that my daughters are also title holders in their categories. That said, I am not a pageant mom. Pageantry is very political, and if you are not careful, it will change you.”
As a wife and mother, Arteja is very protective of how she is portrayed in the media. Plunging necklines and airbrushed cheekbones were not going to work for her. Arteja knew that for her to be successful, she had to be the one who controlled her narrative.
“I tell people I was a queen before the crown,” she explains. “I’m a smooth two-hundred-five pounds and loving it!” Arteja exclaimed, flashing bright eyes and a genuine smile. “I’m not going on a diet or changing a thing about myself. This is the Arteja who won because the judges called me ‘a breath of fresh air.’ You may be surprised how many women are willing to trade their moral compass for a crown.”
Arteja says that although she doesn’t plan to compete anymore, she still plans to take part in the world of pageantry.
There are two major systems in pageantry. There is Arkansas America, which leads to Miss America, and there is Mrs. Arkansas International. “I attempted Miss America, but I always landed in the top ten. I felt like Arkansas America wasn’t looking for an African American queen right now. They were looking for someone who is the polar opposite of me. So I went to the international system,” Arteja explained. Her wisdom paid off.
As Mrs. Arkansas International, Arteja now has the eyes and ears of people should couldn’t have reached on her own.
“I’m grateful for this opportunity because I was having a hard time getting support for my foundation before. Now everyone can hear me,” she said, laughing. “I made it clear to the judges and anyone who would listen that I was not there to win a pageant. I was there to get the word out about childhood starvation in our local communities. I was there to bring attention to the racial divide in the Arkansas pageant system. I was there to show my daughters and all the little girls watching that beauty is not one size fits all. I now have a way to get my words out. It just so happens to have come with a sash and a crown.”
Arteja admits that her “brand” of beauty was not readily accepted even after she won the crown. An incident with a photo-shopped picture caused Arteja to draw a line in the sand. “As I said, if you are not careful, this industry can change you. They will try to recreate you in their image, and that is something I refuse to do. I preach self-love, advocacy, and being your authentic self. I would be a hypocrite if I allowed myself to be presented as anyone but me.”
“As an advocate, I am always thinking about the young women who will come after me. So I’ve created my own pageant system, called Miss Arkansas F.A.C.S. The age categories are 0-75. My goal is to continue to bring attention to the F.A.C.S. foundation while doing my part to encourage and uplift all women in the world of pageantry.”
The future is bright for Arteja and her family. After her year as Mrs. Arkansas International, we may see her name on the school board election ballot. The possibilities for a queen and those who embrace their authentic selves are endless.