Alexis Cooper had lots of options for the talent portion of the Miss Utah State University pageant. She could play the viola or the piano, she thought, or she could dance.

Instead, she decided to perform a spoken-word poem about the challenges of being a woman of color on campus. People cautioned her that might not be a winning talent, but that was OK, she decided. She was there to make a point.

She couldn’t see the crowd through the bright spotlight as she recited. After she finished, she heard nothing but silence.

“And I thought, ’Oh my gosh, it’s happening — everyone hated it and I messed up and I just outed myself and all of the people of color on this campus,’” Cooper said. “‘Holy cow, now everyone is going to assume that I’m just some angry black woman who’s up here preaching to them.’”

Then the crowd rose in a standing ovation.

Cooper, a junior agriculture science major, was crowned Miss USU last week. Though her poem explored her difficulties on the predominantly white campus, she said her experience following the same path as her white grandmother — who was also a beauty queen and a sorority sister at USU — represents a stride forward.

Her paternal grandmother, Freddie Cooper, “would tell me stories about how she wasn’t allowed to go to the front door of some clothing stores [in the South] because she was black,” Cooper recalled.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Alexis Cooper, a junior at Utah State University, was named Miss USU on Tuesday, April 17, in a beauty pageant. Recently, Cooper re-created the pose held by her grandmother Irene Heywood in the 1940s on the historic block "A" on the Aggie campus. Cooper's grandmother, later Irene Jenson, was also a Kappa Delta sorority sister and beauty queen.
(Photo courtesy Janet Jenson) Irene Jenson was a beauty queen and Kappa Delta sorority sister when she was a student at Utah State University in the 1940s. Her granddaughter Alexis Cooper has followed in her footsteps.

Meanwhile, her maternal grandmother, Irene Jenson, would tell Cooper stories about her sorority days on the Logan campus.

“It just shows that, through the generations, things get better and things become more inclusive and we’re on the right side of history — us inclusive and understanding people,” Cooper said. “And eventually us little guys, the little diverse guys, if we’re loud enough, we will make changes and we will be heard.”

A USU spokesman said he couldn’t confirm whether a black woman had ever before been crowned as Miss USU, noting that the school doesn’t keep track of that information. The school’s student body is currently more than 85 percent white, according to enrollment numbers for spring 2018.

Cooper said she’d never considered herself the beauty pageant type but was attracted by the event’s theme — “There’s more to me.”

“That just really spoke to me,” she said. “There are a lot of kind of preconceived judgments and notions that are placed upon me because of things that I can’t control, like my skin color or my age.”

Cooper said she wanted to give other students insight into the everyday ignorance and racism she experiences on campus — from being judged for wearing her hair in box braids to having a former boyfriend say he didn’t want to tell his family he was dating a black girl.

“I am more than a contrary color,” she said in her poem, contrasting her life as an undergraduate researcher and “palpating pregnant cows” against stereotypes. “We can’t let ignorance lead us down a path where we don’t realize our mind is trapped in the boxes and check marks that this world has made us attach to each gender and skin tone.”

Many of the contestants sang or danced, but one performed magic tricks and another yodeled, according to Riley Michaelsen, a USU student and the event’s director.

“I did know that a spoken-word poem wasn’t going to be the most conventional of pageant talents,” Michaelsen said. “But Miss USU … is supposed to highlight the women of our school and all of their unique differences. And so from that perspective, I thought her talent was perfect.”

Rhett Ballantyne, a student at USU who attended the pageant, said he initially was wary when Cooper began talking about her experiences. But ultimately, he said, he walked away from the pageant with an understanding that “we shouldn’t judge anybody based on any beliefs, cultures, ethnicities or religion or anything, because everybody has something to give and everybody is just a normal person.”

Lizzy Snyder, a senior who helped run the pageant, had a similar takeaway.

“Everyone judges people, whether it’s intentional or not,” she said. “… [Cooper’s poem] helps me to not judge a book by its cover. And you think you know someone and you could even know someone pretty well, but there’s always more to them.”

Since the pageant, Cooper said, she’s heard from many students who were surprised by her experiences.

“I’ve gotten a lot of apologies, which I feel bad about because I didn’t want anyone to feel bad for me,” she said. “And I’m like, ‘No, don’t be sorry. You know, people don’t know any better and now that you know better, be better.’”

Freddie Cooper, her paternal grandmother, went to the pageant and saw her win. Cooper thinks Jenson, her late maternal grandmother, would have been proud of her, as well. Later in life, Cooper said, Jenson realized she had been blind to racism before she helped raise a black grandchild.

“I know that she would be proud of me just for opening people’s minds up to what I’m experiencing and what diverse students on this campus experience every day,” Cooper said. “I know that she would really be grateful because that’s what she needed.”

(Courtesy photo) Alexis Cooper's maternal grandmother, Irene Jenson, was also a beauty queen and Kappa Delta sorority sister when she was at Utah State University in the 1940s.