Growing up in Tacoma, Jamerika Haynes-Lewis was enamored with Pierce County’s Daffodil Parade, particularly its royalty court. She wanted to be a princess.
“I would see the Daffodil princesses waving from their float, and I always wanted to do that,” she says.
But, as a foster kid who moved around a lot, “being able to do certain things was hard. Afterschool activities was one of them.”
Haynes-Lewis (’10 Comm.) spent 13 years in the child-welfare system and never competed for a place on the Daffodil court—or in any other pageant—during that time. Now, as the reigning USA Ambassador Ms. 2021, she’s advocating for a more supportive system for foster children and their families. Her platform: “A Chance to Succeed: Empowering Youth in Foster Care.”
She says, “I want foster youth to know they’re not their circumstances. With the right support, they can go on to live productive, happy, fulfilled lives. And they are worthy of that.”
Haynes-Lewis won the title last July 31, her birthday, in Tampa, Florida. Since then, she’s been sharing her story, making appearances both in person and virtually, and volunteering for her cause.
“We have to give our young people a chance,” she says. “We can’t assume anything or take anything for granted.”
Haynes-Lewis grew up in a variety of living situations—from group homes and kinship care to foster homes where she was the only child or one of five foster children. “It was hard,” she says. “You’re away from your family. You don’t quite understand what is happening. And you’re dealing with other people and their expectations.”
When she told one foster mom she wanted to be an actress, Haynes-Lewis was encouraged, instead, to pursue journalism. She didn’t start competing in pageants until she was a 19-year-old student at Tacoma Community College, where she saw a flyer advertising the Miss Pierce County Scholarship Program. She participated two years but didn’t place. And when she transferred to Washington State University her junior year, she says, “I had a lot on my plate.” Pageants took the backburner. “With the Miss America Organization, you age out at 25,” says Haynes-Lewis, now 35 and living in Seattle. “I just thought my chances were over.”
At WSU, she worked at Cable 8 as a reporter as well as in the station’s production and programming. She also worked at KUGR radio and for dining services and completed a journalism internship in Lewiston. She was involved with the Black Student Union. And she was highly motivated.
“When I found out my mother’s rights were terminated I felt completely on my own and alone,” she recalls. “It served as a catalyst for me to do good in school from a young age. When I was at WSU, I was very driven. I was a straight-A student. And I had a lot of unresolved feelings of anger. At times, I felt very stigmatized. I felt like people looked down on me because I was in foster care, I came from a family that was poor, and I’m a darker-skinned African-American.”
Haynes-Lewis worked as a newspaper reporter in California right out of college, returning to Washington state to work as a communications specialist for the YMCA of Greater Seattle. In 2016, she founded Clever Jam Communications, a consulting business offering motivational speaking, workshop facilitation, and strategic communication services.
Five years ago, in honor of her thirtieth birthday, she posted a life-changing selfie on Facebook. A woman who had seen the photo messaged her privately about pageants, encouraging her to participate. After a ten-year break, Haynes-Lewis went to one to support a friend and got swept up in the thrill of it all. “There was this feeling of nostalgia, seeing all the make-up and the dressing room lights. I realized I really missed competing,” says Haynes-Lewis, who decided to enter the USA Ambassador Pageant.
She competed three times and was first runner-up twice. “This third time, I said, ‘I’m going to win.’ I did mock interviews every week for two years straight,” she says. “The monkey wrench was the pandemic. Because of the pandemic, the pageant was postponed.”
But it gave her another year to prepare. “I started taking martial arts classes with my husband. I worked out. I was in the best shape of my life. I was ready.”
But, she says, “You can have women win by one-tenth of a point. There was definitely that pressure.”
She scored highest in the final part of the competition: the on-stage question. “Having a communications background helped me,” says Haynes-Lewis, who—in addition to advocacy—is pursuing modeling and acting. When she won, she says, “I just jumped up and down. It was something that I wanted so bad for so long. I cried my entire crowning.”