It has been a whirlwind couple of weeks for the newly crowned Miss Tennessee, Brianna Mason. And the pace isn't likely to let up soon.
There was an immediate media blitz after she was crowned June 29 in Knoxville, not just from home-state newspapers and broadcasters but from national outlets. Mason, a first-grade teacher from Nashville, is the first African-American woman to claim the Miss Tennessee title since the program began in 1938. The win sends her on to the Miss America competition later this year.
Mason, who turns 24 today, says she's still getting used to the flurry of interviews and photo requests as she begins the official appearances that will have her zigzagging across the state for the next year. As part of her prize package, she has a new car waiting at a Knoxville dealership that she hasn't had time to pick up. She's sure her boyfriend and her cat miss her.
But a swing through Chattanooga last week did give her time to visit her PaPa and NaNa. Grandparents Roderick and Eva Jeanette Morton live in Chattanooga, along with other relatives from the Ghidden and Morton families. Her mother, Tiffany Morton Mason, is a 1989 graduate of Tyner High School who works for the Tennessee legislature in Nashville. Dad Reggie Mason is assistant principal at Ravenwood High School in Brentwood, Tennessee.
Brianna graduated from Ravenwood in 2013 and went on to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, earning a Bachelor of Arts in psychology in 2017 and a Master of Science in elementary education in 2018.
Did you know?
Two Miss Tennessee contestants have gone on to be crowned Miss America: Memphis’ Barbara Walker in 1947 and Kellye Cash in 1987.
She is the oldest of five children, with a sister, a brother and two stepbrothers. During their childhood, she and her siblings spent a couple of weeks every summer with their grandparents. She remembers summer camp at the YMCA, touring the Tennessee Aquarium, exploring the Creative Discovery Museum and going to Lookouts baseball games.
Last week, with her grandmother as a temporary chaperone/chauffeur, Mason sat down with the Times Free Press to reflect on the first couple weeks of her reign. These are some of the topics of conversation.
» On her historic win: Mason was one of 27 women competing for Miss Tennessee. In an interview before the competition, the state pageant's executive director, Lanna Keck-Smith, Miss Tennessee 1997, emphasized that judges hoped to behold more than physical beauty in the contestants.
"We are judging on intellect. We are judging on talent, a skill. We're judging on how they act in public, if they're at ease. We're judging on their public speaking skills," she told the Knoxville News-Sentinel.
"You are wanting a candidate who exudes herself. You are wanting a candidate who connects with people. You need someone who is going to be effective in how she acts, how she speaks and how she relates to young people, old people, every age in between.
"A pretty person on the outside can be very ugly on the inside," Keck-Smith said. "I want a solid, moral, wonderful, beautiful human being on the inside. Because she will be beautiful on the outside."
Grandmother Morton says Mason embodies all of those qualities. "Everything that makes you feel good about yourself is in her," she says.
It has already been a triumphant year for beauty queens of color. Miss USA 2019 Cheslie Kryst, Miss America 2019 Nia Franklin and Miss Teen USA 2019 Kaliegh Garris are all black women.
Mason says she feels fortunate to follow in their footsteps as the first black Miss Tennessee.
"Yes, there's pressure, but in the most positive ways," she says. "I feel I have a greater responsibility. I can go into areas that may have never seen a Miss Tennessee before or a positive representation of an African-American woman. It's such a great honor. I'm thankful that God chose me to be that person making history."
» On perseverance: This was not Mason's first try at Miss Tennessee. She began entering pageants in her first year at UTK, where the Mr. and Miss Freshman pageant gave her a chance to acclimate to campus, meet new people and, importantly, play piano. She has been playing piano since third grade, but had aged out of lessons and opportunities to perform. "I didn't have any more recitals," she says.
She thought she might continue in pageants as a hobby until she discovered the scholarship money that came with the larger programs and "set a goal to make it to Miss Tennessee." She was Miss Knoxville in 2016, Miss Tennessee Waltz in 2017, Miss Knoxville again in 2018 and Miss Greene County in 2019, the title that led to her historic win.
She considers the previous pageants important stepping stones. During her first reign as Miss Knoxville, for instance, she didn't finish within the state contest's Top 15, but she wasn't dissuaded. "The first year, I didn't walk away with anything, but I definitely learned a lot," she says.
She used the intervening time for self-reflection, improving her interview skills and talent, and working on her community-service platform, which included founding a nonprofit organization, Advocates for Autism: Autism Awareness.
In her second year of competing, she was third runner-up. In her third year, second runner-up. The fourth year, she claimed the crown.
"There were times it was discouraging," she admits," but I had a feeling. I knew there was a purpose. I knew there was something in store for me."
» On changes to the program: This was the first year for the newly renamed Miss Tennessee Scholarship Competition (formerly the Miss Tennessee Scholarship Pageant) to be held outside of Jackson, Tennessee. For 67 years, the program was held in the West Tennessee city, but last year the Miss America organization revoked the license that allowed the Jackson pageant directors to hold the competition (along with several other states') and moved the contest to Knoxville (other cities may host it in other years). The Tennessee directors were among dissenters who had signed a letter of no confidence in the Miss America 2.0 initiative that eliminated the swimsuit portion of the national competition and the local contests that feed it.
"It's rebranding and moving into the 21st century," Mason says. "They're trying to let people know that the Miss America pageant is still relevant, that it produces educated, powerful and accomplished women. It doesn't necessarily have to be about outward appearance."
Jackson is still hosting a pageant, now called the Miss Tennessee Volunteer Scholarship Pageant. Winner Kerri Arnold was crowned June 22 and will act as a liaison for Gov. Bill Lee.
Last year's Miss Tennessee, Christine Williamson, cut ties with Miss America and affiliated herself with the Jackson pageant and became its first Miss Tennessee Volunteer.
With Williamson no longer participating as Miss Tennessee, Mason was crowned by several past Miss Tennessee winners, including Kellye Cash-Sheppard, Miss Tennessee 1986 and Miss America 1987.
Mason says the tumult behind the scenes was difficult for all of the contestants, but she ultimately used it as a motivating force when she faced the "tough decision about whether to stay with the program or bow out."
"I could have let it break me down," she says, "but I used it to teach me a lesson and make me a better person."
» On her pageant prep: Going into the final night of the four-day competition, Mason already appeared to be a crowd favorite — based on the enthusiastic reaction whenever her name was announced — and she had won over the judges in two preliminary competitions: talent and overall interview. She would also ace her onstage interview.
For her talent, she performed "Piano Fantasy," a contemporary work by composer William Joseph.
"It's fast," says her grandmother. "When she started playing, I thought 'oh my goodness,' but she did not miss a note."
In a blind draw from sealed envelopes, Mason wound up with one of the night's most provocative questions: whether she believed Confederate monuments should be removed from public places in Tennessee.
"As an African-American woman," she told the judges, the Confederate symbols did not make her "feel positive."
"I do feel like it is part of our history, and if it is part of our history, it belongs in a museum but not in a public place," she said.
In a 10-minute private interview with the judges earlier in the week, she had already tackled another hot-button issue when she was asked if she believed classroom teachers should be armed. She spoke of her desire to be proactive rather than reactive about access to firearms and cited comparison statistics from New Zealand, which has a seven-step process for licensing handguns.
"You have to be able to keep your poise" when answering controversial questions "in front of an audience and a live stream and the judges," she says. "That is the art of interview — having an opinion but presenting it in a way that doesn't offend your audience."
The interview questions are often based on polarizing issues from politics or current events and, in the case of the private interview, may be individualized to a candidate's resume.
Mason says she did a lot of homework to educate herself on various issues, then "did a lot of talking to myself — in the shower, in the car, to my cat."
Whatever events were going on, she would formulate answers and articulate her positions on "why I believe a certain way."
"You can have your opinion," she explains, "but you have to be able to back it up with facts and statistics."
» On her scholarship money: Over the last four years, Mason has earned about $35,000 in scholarship money, including $17,000 as Miss Tennessee. The bulk has gone toward paying off her student loans.
"Student loan debt is a huge issue in my generation, so I'm grateful for that," she says.
The promised car from Rusty Wallace Nissan in Knoxville is an added perk for Mason, who already drives a Nissan Altima. She doesn't know what model has been chosen for her, "but it has to be big enough to carry my keyboard," she says.
It's a full-size instrument, 88 keys.
» On what's next: Mason says she'll take a year off from teaching to keep up with the demands of her new job as Miss Tennessee and to prepare for the Miss America contest (the date has not yet been announced).
She will be an ambassador for the five Children's Miracle Network Hospitals in Tennessee and promote student literacy. She also hopes to advocate for kids with autism in Tennessee as well as "be a voice for educators," she says.
She expects to go back into the classroom when her reign ends and hopes to further her education by pursuing teaching certifications in English language learning and special education.
And she hopes to be a motivating force for whomever she meets as Miss Tennessee. "It's funny that people want to take pictures with me and people want to hear what I have to say," she says, still marveling at the changes that have come with the title.
TV may depict pageant contestants as only concerned with their outward appearance, but Mason says programs like Miss Tennessee are about "poise and intelligence and hard work."
"The journey to be Miss Tennessee was all hard work," she says. "Now I can inspire others to do the same."
Contact Lisa Denton at email@example.com or 423-757-6281.