Friday, May 16, 2014

TOP STORY >> Beauty queen from Jacksonville

Leader staff writer

A Jacksonville native will compete for the Miss Plus America title at the national competition July 1-5 in Atlanta.

Mary Gayden, 21, was crowned Miss Plus Arkansas this month.

Her parents, who reached out to neighborhood kids when she was growing up here, inspired the pageant queen’s platform — determined interactive youth (DIY) mentorship.

The state pageant also marked a turning point for Gayden, who had been in and out of the hospital for gall bladder stones and complications that accompanied a surgery to remove them.

The Miss Plus America competition has been held across the country since 2002, but Arkansas has not held a state pageant for at least five years, Gayden explained.

Instead, Krystal Delani signed up every year to represent Arkansas in the national pageant.

But Delani wanted to change that this year because she thought “we have great plus-size women and intelligent plus-size women, and I can’t do it forever,” Gayden said.

So five women competed for the Miss Plus Arkansas title this month, and Gayden was crowned.

Contestants fell into four categories — teens ages 14-17, “Miss” ages 18-29 who aren’t married, “Ms.” ages 29 and older who aren’t married and “Mrs.” ages 20 and older who are married.

Gayden qualified as a “Miss.” She also won Miss Congeniality, the ambassador award for selling the most tickets to the state pageant, a token for her talent portion with spoken-word piece “Make Me a Sapphire” and the director’s award for best overall interview.

Gayden said the spoken-word piece was about how beautiful young girls are tired of being called diamonds. “Nothing is more distinctive than a real sapphire,” she explained.

And the pageant helped Gayden recover her shine.

A couple of years ago, she began having what doctors, at first, called acid-reflux episodes.

It was eventually discovered that Gayden was suffering from gall bladder stones.

Surgery was required and there were complications, like infections and internal perforations.

Gayden said she had to learn the basics all over again, like walking and eating.

There were a few weeks in the hospital during which she couldn’t eat. Gayden said she lost 30 pounds.

“I learned that your body can change on you and youth is wasted on the young. I really figured out what that meant. Because of my age I was able to bounce back from that injury,” she added.

Gayden also lost her independence because loved ones, nurses and doctors were taking care of her.

The beauty queen said, when she finally returned to school at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway to study public relations and African American culture, “I was still uncomfortable with (myself), all those medical things.”

Then she met her “pageant sister,” who encouraged her to enter the state pageant.

“On the day of that pageant, I felt like me again, the person that is springy, the person that is a little take charge but very loving and caring...It was more about feeling that womaness again, feeling to the point where you’re more confident in being a woman,” Gayden explained.

She added that it helped her feel like an independent adult again too.

Gayden was born and raised in Jacksonville, with the exception of her family’s stint in Germany from 1997-2000. She moved there at the age of 5.

Gayden’s father was an airman with a wife and five children.

But, “My parents always found time to incorporate all the kids in the neighborhood,” she said.

The couple hosted large birthday parties, church events and other gatherings.

Her father taught the neighborhood boys how to rebuild bikes that they found in the dumpsters. So every child on her street got bikes for their birthdays because of her dad, Gayden said.

“My family showed us that it’s important to give back to the community,” she continued.

And her mother worked as a paraprofessional teacher at Clinton Elementary School in Sherwood and with preschoolers at Pathfinder in Jacksonville.

Gayden said, “They’ve always done it themselves. They’ve never said ‘OK, this is what you’ve got to do’ and walked away. No, I have to follow you. I have to keep up with you, make sure you’re doing it right.” She’s the same way and that is why mentorship is important, the beauty queen explained.

From her run at the title, Gayden said she wants fans to take away that “out of necessity comes creativity.” She encourages parents to find out what their children are good at and nurture their creative talents.

Gayden’s dream is to open a youth education and extracurricular facility that would combine the practices of Sylvan Learning Center with those of the Boys and Girls Club.

She now works with the nonprofit Choosing to Excel, Griot and Students for the Propagation of Black Culture, which is like an “African American SGA (student government association).”

Choosing to Excel has GEMS (Girls Eagerly Maintaining High Standards) and Men of Character and Quality. It also works with Healthy Homes of Arkansas, which does home visits to make sure young mothers know how to properly take care of their children.

Gayden further explained that griot is a term used to describe an African storyteller.

That group is planning to make presentations at local schools about the details of black historical figures.

And, Gayden said, she was on the executive board of the SGA-like organization for three years.

Gayden graduated from North Pulaski High School, where she was president of the French club, a member of the band, organized a fashion show for prom, received a golden medal for foreign language in 2010 and was also named best student in the fashion class in 2010.

Gayden is seeking sponsorships. Those who are interested in helping her should message her on Facebook by searching for Mary Gayden, e-mail her at or visit