By Eiman Zuberi–

When most people think of pageants, they think of sashes, crowns, gowns and beautiful women. Although that is what the on-screen perpetration of a beauty pageant is, there is so much more. Each woman has a belief or cause they feel strongly about, and being knowledgeable the topic is very important for a pageant queen.

University of Louisville political science major Adria Neal is no exception. On the surface, the crowned Miss Black Kentucky USA is a winner in every category. Not only does she have her looks, but she also has an impressive list of extracurriculars — she is a Woodford R. Porter scholar, a member of the National Honors Society, the National Society of Collegiate Scholars and in the Political Science Honors Program.

Look a little deeper into her past, and you’ll discover that Adria Neal isn’t all dazzling smiles and sparkling crowns. Her life wasn’t always glamorous.

“I went through a lot of bullying,” Neal admitted. “I went through middle school extremely insecure.”

Born to an African-American family, Neal described herself as “bright eyed and bushy-tailed” going through elementary school. She was always smiling.

However, when she was in sixth grade, Adria Neal discovered that she was diagnosed with albinism. Albinism is a disorder in which there is a complete or partial absence of pigments in a person. It can affect the skin, hair or eyes. Due to her albinism, Neal has a visual impairment in her blue eyes. To make everything more devastating for a middle schooler, she found out about her disorder through bullying before being told by her parents.

“When I found out, it completely crushed my confidence,” Neal said. “In high school, I got really angry. I would turn my sadness into anger. So I prayed that it wouldn’t follow me.”

College, however, was a “journey of rediscovery” that changed her life. A friend of hers was recruiting for the Miss Black Kentucky USA pageant and tried to convince Adria to join.

“I told her I was not a pageant person,” Neal said. “I did not want to put myself out there again for everyone to judge me.”

Her friend insisted she join as a way of “healing and for letting others hear her story.” She reluctantly signed up.

Before she knew it, Adria Neal was the default winner of the 2015 Miss Black Kentucky USA pageant.

“People would say, ‘Oh, she’s a hero and she’s going to stand up for everyone!’ But I was terrified… but then it turned out to be my process of healing,” Neal said.

Being in a pageant helped Adria embrace herself and spread the message of positivity and self-love to other girls. She uses her past and her love for God to get through everything. Adria hopes to see the city of Louisville encounter the love of Jesus.

“Over the last year or so, it has been me and Jesus figuring everything out. He has taught me to counteract the lies people say about me with the truth,” she said.

Now, as a crowned winner, Adria focuses on finding organizations that she can join.  Her goal is to break the bonds of self hatred and inspire girls to love the skin they’re in.

“You have to know who you are before you allow people to write things for you. I wish I had known that back then,” she said.

But what does she actually think of pageants? Adria thinks that if the motive is right, any girl should be encouraged to compete in a beauty pageant.

“You need to know why you’re doing it and what’s in your heart. It can be a downfall for some girls to be more beautiful or better or smarter than the competition,” Neal said. She said she would not let her daughter get involved in the notion that she “wouldn’t be good enough.”

As a senior, Adria has a plan for her future. She plans to take a year off after graduation to apply to graduate school. In the future, she hopes to run for public office, first on a state level and eventually on a national level.

“I love school. I love studying. I’m a nerd,” Neal said, laughing.

Some organizations Adria is a part of are Pinky Promise (a Christian organization that encourages young women to stay pure), Youth For Christ at a local middle school, Sisterhood Road of Freedom (which encourages African-American women to embrace their beauty) and other church organizations. She is a part of the Refuge, a local youth ministry, and the Evangel World Prayer Center. She is also a spokesperson for the Heart Truth Campaign, which raises awareness about heart disease among women. Finally, she has been involved in a summer research program about gun control.

When asked how she manages to balance all her pageant duties with those of a regular student, Adria said she used to be more overwhelmed before becoming Miss Black Kentucky USA.

“I used to be the kind of person to take things into my own hands but that caused a lot of anxiety. I don’t have full control over my life and I need to trust His plan and not try doing it myself,” she said.

Being a pageant winner has given Adria the power to speak to other young girls. She has been inspired by the positive feedback she has received. Although initially afraid of backlash, she has been fortunate in the sense that she has not inherited any. Her platform is building a positive self image, which was learned from her personal experience of bullying and rejection.

“I want to be someone who is willing to stand up for certain issues that some people don’t want to talk about. I can be a voice for girls who don’t want to talk yet,” she said. Lucky for her, she doesn’t get nervous speaking in front of people.

“It has been a difficult journey but the best thing I’ve ever done,” Neal said.