Photo credit: Daryl Schabinger /Miss Illinois Teen USA
After earning second runner-up in last year's Miss Illinois Teen USA, 16-year-old Sydni Dion Bennett has returned this year and made history as the first African American to win the pageant title.
"When they said my name, I was like, ‘Whoa! It’s me!’ I wasn’t expecting it, honestly," the teen tells the Chicago Tribune.
Admitting that her historic win didn't set in until a couple of days after, Bennett said her and her friends knew that this year had to be the year for change to happen.
"There were very few Black girls competing," she said. "We were all close friends and talked about how it had to be the year for one of us to take it. No matter who, we wanted one of us to win."
Photo credit: Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune
For Bennett, who is also a ballerina, her sights weren't always on pageantry.
"My mom and I saw a previous winner on the news, and she asked me if pageantry was something I wanted to do. I said, Yes, like, oh, OK, whatever,' but didn’t think she’d actually sign me up."
After competing for the first time last year, Bennett admits she was hooked and decided to come back this year for another try.
While the absence of representation may discourage some people from moving forward with a competition, Bennett says the news of no African American teen winning the competition actually encouraged her to go harder.
"I found out the night before the final show, actually. It made me want to fight harder and to win for all the black girls around, not just for myself," she said. "I didn’t feel less about my ability to win because no Black girl had done it; it put a drive in me rather than a doubt."
As a dance student at the Chicago Academy for the Arts, Bennett's friends have often compared her to Misty Copeland due to her ballerina talent. However, the compliment is one that the teen has shied away from as she lives by the mantra, "Be yourself. Everyone is already taken."
Photo via: Miss Illinois Teen USA
Spending her spare time as a coach at Perfection Dance Artistry and Company dance studio in Illinois, Bennett said the thing that she thinks set her apart from her competition is her willingness to show her authentic self before the judges.
"I think a lot of girls go in to pageants feeling like they have to make the judges think they’re somebody they’re not. But I went in with 'I'm me; this is who I am.' Talking about my hands-on work with teaching and mentoring kids was easy because it’s my everyday life. I think that’s the thing that set me apart, being genuine."
Congratulations, Sydni! You're absolutely right; when one of us wins, we all win!