When Tay’Jah Franklin walks the stage at pageants, she never feels like she’s walking alone. She knows her family is beside her.
Her family is rooting for her as she takes on her first national competition. But she’s also propelled by the memory of her late great uncles, Dale and David.
The pageants in which Tay’Jah competes ask contestants to bring someone with them to escort them as they walk and pose on stage — preferably male figures. Since her father is not in her life, her great uncle, Dale, agreed to be her escort for a pageant she was set to attend in June 2021. It would be her second pageant back after the COVID-19 pandemic halt, and she had her goal set on placing.
When Dale suddenly died from a heart attack in April 2021, Tay’Jah and her family were forced to pick up the pieces. Grieving loved ones is ongoing, they say.
That’s when another one of Tay’Jah’s great uncles, David, offered to step into Dale’s place. But then he suddenly died, also from a heart attack, the following June — the same month as Tay’Jah’s pageant. The pageant was quickly approaching, and at that point, she wanted nothing to do with it anymore.
She struggled to grapple with how this could happen.
“I think it was kind of hard for her to, one, realize that [Dale] was gone, and then to realize that this was her escort as well,” Tay’Jah’s grandmother, Yolanda Franklin, says. “So she really didn’t want to compete anymore. And then when Uncle David decided to step in and he passed away, she really didn’t want to.”
Tay’Jah decided to take a break. But at her first pageant back in Columbia, Missouri last March, people knew her story and showed her and her family compassion. And she had a new escort — her grandmother, Yolanda.
With other contestants in her pageants, Tay’Jah doesn’t feel all that competitive. She’d rather offer them her support.
“You’re very pretty in your own skin,” she says she tells the other pageant contestants and her school friends. “Just think of something comfortable that’s comfortable for you. Just don’t push yourself to your limit. You can do anything.”
Tay’Jah, who has competed in pageants since she was 9 years old, earned the Sportsmanlike Award at a 2019 pageant after she introduced herself to every contestant she came in contact with and cheered on her opponents. There’s plenty of room to simultaneously be happy for yourself and be happy for others, she says.
At a regional competition in Columbia, she earned third place in the Casual Wear category, qualifying her for the Nationals. It’s a natural pageant that doesn’t allow contestants to wear makeup.
Yolanda was surprised when she was awarded with the Best Escort award during the pageant, but supporting her grandchildren to the fullest has always been a given. And judges probably noticed her and Tay’Jah praying over the contestants throughout, she guessed.
Tay’Jah credits her grandmother and the rest of her support system for all she’s been able to persevere through.
“She’s like the glue in my whole life,” Tay’Jah said. “If she wasn’t there, I’d just be confused and wouldn’t know what to do. And it’s my mom and the rest of my family members including her that I love are just like stuck to me. I’m like duct tape, and they’re just wrapped around me.”
Even though she used to participate in dancing, it’s taken some time for her to feel comfortable in the pageant setting. Realizing everyone is looking at her sometimes “feels like my soul left me for a minute,” she admits. But she’s always proud of herself and gets better each time.
“The spotlight is just on her, so it’s all about your personal beauty — loving the skin that you’re in from the top of your head to the sole of your feet,” Yolanda said. “Love your hair, love your arms, your feet, your toes, your kneecaps, you know, love everything about you, and that’s what this pageant does. It makes them love them.”
Tay’Jah will be vying for the national title in Orlando during Thanksgiving week. Since she qualified for nationals based on her casual wear outfit at regionals, she’s required to compete in that category again.
No worries there. Her outfit is already planned out: Sporting her favorite color, green, she’ll wear a coordinated athletic-esque outfit with a T-shirt that memorializes her late uncles, Dale and David. She’ll stay on theme with the green for her gown in the formal wear category.
Yolanda says the ultimate way the Lawrence community can support Tay’Jah in the coming months is to flood her with encouragement around town.
“If they see her in the store, at school or whatever, just, just love on her,” Yolanda says. “Like ‘Hey, we are so proud that you’re representing LFK,’ as they call it.”
Tay’Jah will also be hosting a fundraiser for her pageant fees, where she’ll sell $20 turkey leg meals, from 2 to 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 23. Those interested in attending to support can find details on the fundraiser’s Facebook event page.
Donations directly to her pageant fund are also welcome.