“Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken,” is the mantra that 16-year-old Sydni Dion Bennett lives by and it probably played a large part in her making Miss Illinois Teen USA history.
The ballerina's historic win makes her the first African-American to win the title in the pageant's 34-year history. Last year, she came in second place.
“When they said my name, I was like, ‘Whoa! It’s me!’ I wasn’t expecting it, honestly. My reaction video isn’t that good because I didn’t know what to do. It set in a couple days after," Bennett said in an interview with The Chicago Tribune.
Bennett said she didn't know until the night before the finals that a black girl hadn't won in the history of the pageant, and with that in her mind, she was motivated to win it all.
"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.”
Bennett credits her life experiences for preparing her for the win:
“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.”
Oddly enough, her entrance into the pageant world was a fluke according to Bennett.
“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.”
She admitted that she's "hooked" to pageantry, but would've picked a dance competition if it would've fell on the same weekend.
Randy Duncan, chair of the dance department at the Chicago Academy for the Arts is Bennett's art teacher. He said he's proud of what she's accomplished thus far.
“A lot of time, if you don’t see someone who looks like you in any event, you may think, ‘I don’t belong.’ But (Bennett) had all the confidence in the world to go and compete, and it worked out for her. I’m so happy and thrilled about that. It’s great to break barriers."
Although the date of the national pageant hasn't been announced yet, Bennett has already started preparing for it.
“The company (Vanbros) gives all of their winners a whole prep team to make sure we’re well-rounded. We have a book list. I have to take the citizenship test, watch the news to stay up on everything. It’s not just walk in and compete. It’s serious now. It’s a lot, but I can handle it.”
Congrats to Sydni Dion Bennett for representing #BlackGirlMagic!
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