One afternoon last January, Jada Samuel’s phone started to blow up. Her friends wanted to know if she’d seen the news.
The Miss South Carolina Scholarship Organization had just announced that the Miss America competition’s maximum age for eligibility had been raised from 25 to 28.
It was especially big news for then-26-year-old Samuel, a Greenville native who competed in Miss South Carolina four times before aging out. Though she never took home the crown, she came close, placing in the top 10 in 2018, 2019 and 2021. She was second runner-up in 2022.
With her pageant career over, the 2018 University of South Carolina alumna was considering a move to Washington, D.C., where she could focus on her burgeoning political communications career. But now that she was eligible again, Samuel couldn’t pass up the chance to give Miss South Carolina one more shot.
“I always tell people, ‘Why not dream big?’” she says. "If you know something is bigger than you, and you know that your impact goes beyond your area or the local title that you’re serving, why not continue to serve? Why not continue to reach people with whatever message you have?”
In June, that dream came true. Samuel was named Miss South Carolina, becoming the oldest woman to wear the crown in the pageant’s 86-year history. She represented the Palmetto State in the Miss America competition, which culminated with a livestreamed event on Jan. 14.
Service is a key component of the Miss America program. Since winning at the state level, Samuel has focused on her social impact initiative, iShapeMe. The nonprofit mentoring organization promotes high self-esteem and positive body image for girls and young women. It was inspired by Samuel’s own childhood struggle with severe eczema, which caused bleeding, cracked skin and hair loss.
“I definitely had low self-esteem and lacked confidence in middle school and the beginning of high school,” she says. “My mentors — cousins and other women in my community — poured into me and made me feel more confident in the woman I was and what I brought to the table. I wanted to pour back into the girls in my community.”
So in 2014, her senior year of high school, she hosted what was supposed to be a small event at her church. More than 70 girls showed up.
“I think that's when I recognized the need for these kinds of conversations about confidence, about bullying, about self-esteem, about body image,” she says. “They weren't only fun to have, but they were a necessity.”
After high school, she came to USC and quickly found her home in the broadcast journalism program. The senior semester capstone course, led by instructors Greg Brannon and Rick Peterson, helped hone her public speaking skills.
“Greg Brannon was amazing at keeping us on our toes and teaching us to look for new stories and new perspectives. And Rick was honestly similar to a pageant judge in a lot of ways,” she says with a laugh. “He wanted you to succeed and to excel, but he also gave you the most honest feedback.”
Winning $85,000 in scholarships helped her pay back her student loans. And her degree from the School of Journalism and Mass Communications gave her the foundational skills to represent a brand like Miss South Carolina. As Samuel explains, J-school graduates are often ahead of other competitors because they are more comfortable speaking on camera, on stage or to large groups.
“You never know if you're going to be at an elementary school or a senior citizens living facility,” she says. “You have no clue who you're going to be interacting with throughout the year. The J-school gives you all those skills.”
Beyond the classroom, Samuel has learned to embrace her authenticity. When she won last year, she competed with curly, natural hair, something once unheard of in the pageant world, particularly for women of color. She was also the first winner in more than 60 years whose talent was a dramatic monologue.
But the woman who started iShapeMe is most proud of her potential impact on the next generation of women. At a recent outreach event, an eighth-grade girl stuck around at the end to chat.
“She didn't even have social media or want to take a picture,” Samuel says. “She just wanted to talk to me and tell me that she loved what I had to say, and it meant something to her and that she felt more confident in who she was because of the conversations I had with these middle-schoolers. That was one of my favorite moments. I was almost in tears.”