Jana Murrell: Working Towards a New Standard of Beauty
Jana Murrell was somewhat of a trendsetter when I did this mini-profile on her in 2005. She was the first Miss Nebraska who was not Caucasian (though she is biracial she identifies as African-American) and she competed with several other women of color in the Miss USA pageant that year. Since then more African-American women have become pageant winners and finalists both here and nationally. She went on to compete in other national pageants, including Miss Earth USA. She was an on-camera television traffic reporter for a time at KETV in Omaha. But all along she was studying for her Ph.D. in physical therapy. She went on to work as Essence Pageant emcee and director of operations. And I just read where she’s newly engaged to be married. She and other women of color have helped redefine standards of beauty in America that are more diverse and inclusive and that’s a good thing. Black is beautiful, baby. So is brown and every other hue.
Jana Murrell: Working Towards a New Standard of Beauty
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
After years of neglect, women of color are fast emerging as new cultural icons of beauty in America. Reigning Miss Nebraska USA Jana Murrell, a 23-year-old African-American from Omaha competing in the Miss USA 2005 pageant being broadcast April 11 by NBC, is part of this barrier-breaking trend. “I think it’s about time,” said Murrell, gesturing in her best spokesmodel way at her North Omaha home. “You know, it’s really hard to change the public’s opinion of beauty from the blond-haired, blue-eyed girl that’s kind of been IT forever. So, for us to be able to make that change is something pretty powerful. I’m glad society’s being more accepting and more open to different kinds of beauty. Beauty’s everywhere.”
Murrell is one of several women of color competing in the 54th annual event, which takes place at the Hippodrome Theatre in Baltimore, MD.
Currently on break from her physical therapy doctorate studies at Creighton University, where she was a 2000 Presidential Diversity scholarship recipient, Murrell defies beauty pageant contestant stereotypes in many ways. The product of an interracial family, the mocha-complexioned, 5-foot-11 Murrell, whose blue eyes change to green, gray and blue-green depending on the light, embodies expectation-bending with her fairly exotic look and eclectic resume. A former competitive athlete who teaches step aerobics, Murrell is also a perennial Dean’s List student. She’s equally comfortable rehabbing patients in a set of scrubs to gliding down a runway in a swimsuit or evening gown to working out in sweats to making an elegant public appearance in a smart ensemble. This combination tomboy, girly girl and nerd enjoys how her versatility keeps people guessing. Her biracial makeup is another expression of her multi-dimensional identity.
“What I like best, which I think actually could help me at Miss USA, is that you can’t tell what I am. A lot of people come up and ask me, ‘What are you?’ And I like that. I like being different looking,” Murrell said. “I like that our society is becoming so mixed and integrated and such a melting pot that sometimes you can’t tell what people are anymore. And when you can’t tell what they are, you can’t label them. They’re just people. Now, beauty is just beauty. Not black or white…”
However, she said she still runs up against old attitudes that beg the question, “’What’s it like being a black Miss Nebraska?’” And I’m like, ‘Why don’t you ask me what it’s like being me?’ Or, ‘Why do I have to be the black Miss Nebraska? Why can’t I be Miss Nebraska?’” Good point.
The North High graduate entered her first Miss Nebraska USA pageant only a few years ago. She finished as first-runnerup twice, before winning the crown and sash in Norfolk, Neb. last fall. Always looking for new ways to challenge herself, she views the pageant thing as an opportunity to improve herself and to test the fashion/entertainment waters. She’s “dabbled” in modeling. An agent once urged her to go to New York, but her mother nixed that. School came first. With her long-term professional track charted — Murrell plans working with patients suffering from neurological disorders — she has the security of a career awaiting her. But with a year off from school to fulfill her title’s goodwill obligations, she hopes Miss USA provides a forum for being seen and discovered.
“If I meet the people I would like to meet and get the chances I would like to get,” she said, “then this is the time I can really pursue that and see what happens. It’s kind of like my last chance to really go for that.”
Speaking from Baltimore on the eve of Miss USA, Murrell was prepping for a telecast number in the “little red” Tadashi dress contestants wear. She said the many pre-pageant activities make for 16-hour days. There are meet-and-greet events, photo shoots, tapings, fittings, fashion shows, rehearsals. “It’s fast-paced, go-go-go. You don’t get a lot of sleep. But it’s a lot of fun. I’m still feeling really prepared and ready and confident. And I still feel like I might do it,” she said. Win, or finish high, she means. No Miss Nebraska has ever won and the last semi-finalist from here was in 1980. Whatever happens, she’ll have plenty of family on hand, including her parents. “I’ll have quite a little cheering section.”
She’s struck up a few friendships with contestants. Away from the cameras, she said, the vibe among the women “is like a big slumber party.” Besides meeting some Baltimore Ravens players for a staged game of flag football, she hasn’t hooked-up with any big names or door-opener types yet. Hobnobbing with The Donald, as in pageant principal Donald Trump, is sure to be a highlight as will be pressing-the-flesh with celebrity judge Sugar Ray Leonard. Even if someone doesn’t make her an offer she can’t refuse, Murrell can take solace in the fact “we’re the pageant that’s still on TV,” referring to the rival Miss America pageant’s relative decline.