When Cierra Jackson entered the Miss America Pageant system in 2011, it didn't take long for her to soar. The first year, she was crowned Miss Brookhaven, which qualified her to compete in the Miss Georgia Pageant, where she placed among the top 12 contestants.
But from there it was a bumpy road for the young woman who will represent Columbus this week at the 71st Annual Miss Georgia Pageant, with the hopes of making it to the Miss America Pageant in September. The state competition will be held Wednesday through Saturday at the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts.
In 2012, Jackson competed in 10 different regional pageants to no avail. In 2013, she tried for six titles and was eventually crowned Miss Rome. She was the first black woman to hold the title; however, her hopes were soon dashed when she returned to the Miss Georgia Pageant in 2013 and didn't place among the top contestants.
That's when Jackson realized that something was missing.
"Coming from a top 12 win in 2011, trying to make it back to Miss Georgia in 2012 and not making it; getting to Miss Georgia in 2013, and competing for Miss Spelman College, and not placing in either pageant, it really shook me," said the 2014 Spelman graduate. "And I think I went through a slight bit of depression. I felt that way because I was so ready to get back to Miss Georgia and do well, that I wasn't so much concerned with what my image was, how I presented myself or what issues were important to me," she continued.
"I kind of let everyone tell me what they wanted me to speak about, tell me what issues I should talk about, how I should dress, how I should wear my hair, all these different things, and I really didn't rock the boat at all. I just listened to what everybody said, and tried to be obedient to the information that they gave me, but I wasn't successful."
So Jackson took a one-year hiatus to reassess her life. When she returned to the pageant circuit in the fall of 2014, she focused on being authentic. Instead of straightening her hair for pageants, she began sporting her naturally curly hair, and her fortune began to change.
Jackson competed for Miss Atlanta and won People's Choice, then she placed second runner-up for Miss Cobb County and Miss Cherokee Rose in Cherokee County. Next on the journey to the state competition was the Miss Columbus pageant, where she won first place.
"I had better hair days before Miss Columbus," Jackson said. "But I made it through and couldn't be more proud and more thankful to God."
A native of Bowling Green, Ky., Jackson moved to Columbus when she was 8 years old. She went to Britt David Elementary School and Blackmon Road Middle School, before graduating from Columbus High in 2010. Her mother is a dentist, and her father is in the military. Jackson, who is an only child, said her father's frequent deployments left a void in her life.
"As a child, you always miss your parents," she said. "I always wanted to be with Dad as soon as he got home. I was very attached to him."
Jackson said her mother started her in small pageants at a young age, but it became a passionate pursuit once she entered Spelman College in the fall of 2010. As a freshman, she won a pageant sponsored by the Phi Beta Sigma chapter at Morehouse College, and it whet her appetite for more competitions.
"If you know anything about college politics, freshmen normally don't run for Greek pageants," she said. "So I definitely rocked the boat a little bit."
After being crowned Miss Phi Beta Sigma, Jackson said, she was sitting in Spanish class and saw one of her classmates wearing a Miss America key chain. She inquired about the pageant, and learned that she could apply online. So Jackson signed up and began competing for titles so she could qualify for the Miss Georgia Pageant. She tried for Miss Georgia Cotton that January.
"It was a very difficult pageant for me," she said. "I had just gotten word that my father was deploying. So, this was like my first pageant, and my swimsuit wasn't quite what I needed it to be and my talent and platform still needed a lot of development.
"I also cried in the interview because they asked me a question about my father and him deploying, and it was fresh on my mind."
Though she didn't win the pageant, Jackson continued to compete for other local titles. She won People's Choice in the competition for Miss Fulton County, then made second runner-up for Miss Conyers Cherry Blossom. In March 2011, Jackson finally won Miss Brookhaven, which catapulted her into the state competition. But the Miss Phi Beta Sigma and Miss Georgia pageants were the same night, and she wanted to compete in both.
"I went to my mom and asked her, 'Which one do you think I should do?' And she said, 'The Miss America one,'
I decided, 'Let me just go with what I know. I'll listen to my mom and just see where this takes me.'"
To Jackson's surprise, that's when she made the top 12. It was an exhilarating experience.
But after that, Jackson said, she saw many dark days. In addition to a losing streak, she also had to contend with negative comments posted online.
"Right before (the Miss Rome Pageant), someone had posted something mean about me," she said. "I can't remember what it was, but I remember being extremely sad, calling my mom in the middle of the night and being so upset by what they had said because it had no truth to it."
Jackson said that's when she began to really understand ups and downs of the pageant journey. She said many contestants are tough young women who have had to overcome many adversities to compete, whether it's people spreading malicious rumors about them or struggling with their own insecurities each time they get up on stage.
"I think people look at us and they think our lives are easy, but there are so many things that they don't see that we go through every day," she said. "So I commend all my pageant sisters for all the trials and tribulations that they've been through. I know it has taken a long time to become the women we are today."
Jackson said she found it especially painful when she received negative feedback from some people in the community about competing with her natural hair. And the criticism came from where it was most unexpected.
"People who were like me, people who were black, people who had naturally curly hair were actually the people who didn't like it," she said. "And it was my (white) counterparts who loved my hair, who thought it was cool because it was different and they had never seen anything like it."
She said the experience taught her that there's a lot of self-hate in the community and made her more determined to win a pageant with her hair in its natural coils.
"I knew if people had the ability to just see me compete with my natural hair, I would be able to inspire and change the perspectives of so many people. And just let them know there is no cookie-cutter way to be Miss Georgia or Miss America or Miss Columbus; that you truly (can win) when you work hard and you are your true authentic self. I think authenticity is so important today."
In 2014, Jackson graduated from Spelman with a bachelor's in political science. She has served as the Spelman SGA liaison to the Office of College Relations. She is also a member of the Granddaughters' Club, an organization for women whose family members also went to Spelman, and a G.I. Bill Scholarship recipient. She was inducted into the National Society of Leadership and Success in the fall of 2012.
Over the years, Jackson has volunteered for many organizations, including the Ronald McDonald House, Salvation Army, the Humane Society and the Boys & Girls Club,
As Miss Columbus, her platform is "Behind the Frontline," and she raises money to help military families. She said she would like to expand the program to include families of police, firefighters and medical first responders.
Jackson has pledged more than 150 hours of community service to first lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden's Joining Forces Campaign, according to her website. And she was a founding member of an organization on Spelman's campus called Saluting our Armed Services, which aims to give back to veterans and their families.
Jackson plans to study law at Harvard or Emory University and hopes to become the first female governor of Georgia.
Alva James-Johnson, 706-571-8521. Reach her on Facebook at AlvaJamesJohnsonLedger.