The Fayetteville Dogwood Festival hosted its 24th Annual Miss Fayetteville Dogwood Pageant Sept. 17 at Seabrook Auditorium. The longstanding community tradition celebrates the talent and accomplishments of young women and ladies across the Sandhills.
This year, 26 contestants were grouped into five competition levels: Little Miss (5-7), Young Miss (8-10), Junior Miss (11-13), Teen Miss (14-17), and Miss Fayetteville (18-24).
More than a mere “beauty pageant,” the young ladies competing for Miss Fayetteville Dogwood are judged by rigorous criteria, which include both a private and on-stage interview for all contestants, Sunday Best for Young and Little Miss, Evening Gown for Miss, Teen Miss, and Junior Miss, and finally, Talent for the Miss Fayetteville Dogwood level.
While putting their best dress forward is certainly part of the fun for the contestants, the Dogwood Festival makes their values clear as the interview portion is the most strongly weighted criterion at each competition level.
All young ladies aged 5-24 are eligible to compete, provided they live in Bladen, Cumberland, Harnett, Hoke, Moore, Robeson or Sampson county.
Winners in the Miss and Teen Miss categories each win a scholarship along with their titles, and winners in all other categories will have an opportunity to represent the Fayetteville Dogwood Festival at various events throughout the year.
Up & Coming Weekly spoke with Sarahgrace Snipes Mitchell, executive director of the Fayetteville Dogwood Festival, about the organization's involvement with the pageant and its dedication to developing opportunities for young ladies of the region.
“The Miss Fayetteville Dogwood Pageant is a way for us to interact with a different population within the community,” Mitchell explained. “We usually interact through music and art, but through this event, we're able to have a more personal and intimate relationship with our contestants, the winners, and their families.”
In a society focused on elevating women based on likes, clicks and views, the Miss Fayetteville Dogwood Pageant seeks to show the value of substance over superficiality.
Through this pageant, the young women on stage get to compete based on their merit, personality and passions — building strong foundations for their futures.
“The value of this pageant is in the experience these young ladies get,” said Mitchell. “When we look at female empowerment, young women need an opportunity to build confidence in who they are and who they can be.”
For 40 years, the Dogwood Festival name has been synonymous with unification and has come to exemplify the best of what Fayetteville and surrounding areas have to offer; as such, their standards for Miss Fayetteville Dogwood Festival are quite high.
“Our pageant is looking for young women who are honest, have strong integrity, patience, kindness, and the ability to be humble,” shared Mitchell.
Up & Coming Weekly spoke with this year’s winners to learn a little more about the young women representing the Fayetteville Dogwood Festival.
Little Miss — Betty Leggett
Elizabeth “Betty” Leggett is this year’s Little Miss Fayetteville Dogwood Festival title winner. This is the Village Christian Academy Kindergartener's very first pageant.
A born performer with a great imagination, Betty loves dancing, dressing up, and playing with her baby dolls. Betty also participates in cheer, ballet, and jazz dance. When she grows up, she'd like to use her talents to become a farmer or a teacher.
Though she loves getting all dressed up and putting on makeup, Betty finds it challenging to sit still and not fidget, but admits it's worth it to win a crown.
Young Miss — Emma Luchetta
The winner of this year's Young Miss Fayetteville Dogwood Festival is ten-year-old Emma Luchetta of Eastover Central Elementary. Emma, a fifth grader this year, is new to pageantry, having participated in her first one back in February, where she was named Little Miss Cape Fear.
Emma is a competitive gymnast on the Gold Team at Omega Gymnastics when not on stage. In addition to her extracurricular accomplishments, Emma is Vice-President of her school's BETA Club and Student-Athlete of the Year.
Along with the Young Miss title at this year’s pageant, Emma won Miss Congeniality and Best Interview in her category. Emma wants to be a Marine Biologist and hopes to own a cage-free animal rescue when she grows up.
“I love how much fun you can have and that you can just be yourself,” she said of competing in pageants. “You don't have to pretend to be like anyone else.”
Junior Miss — McKala Sallie
Mac Williams Middle School eighth-grader McKala Sallie took home the title of Junior Miss Fayetteville Dogwood Festival.
McKala is a seasoned performer, having participated in pageants since she was six months old. McKala has earned several titles, including Carolinas’ Miss Unity for Miss Celebrations USA and Junior Miss Eastover.
In addition to her commitment to pageantry, McKala also runs track for Mac Williams Middle School. When she graduates, she’d like to pursue a career as a sports announcer for ESPN college football or give back all the knowledge she’s gained as a pageant coach.
McKala admits it can be challenging to overcome her nerves but loves competing in pageants for the skills they teach and the opportunity they offer to talk about her passions.
“I love pageants because they give me a chance to learn life lessons, like interviews and public speaking,” McKala shared with Up & Coming Weekly. “They also give me the opportunity to tell everyone about my platform, Off-Road OutReach, and why there shouldn't be homeless Veterans.”
Teen Miss — Olivia Gray
Oliva Gray is this year's Teen Miss Fayetteville Dogwood Festival Pageant winner. A high school senior at Village Christian Academy, this is Olivia's first foray into the pageant world.
Olivia is currently a part of the High School Connections Program at Fayetteville Technical Community College and is pursuing a certificate in Criminal Justice. Outside of her academic successes, Olivia is her school's varsity cheer captain, yearbook editor, is involved in several clubs, and speaks two languages. Though she's new to pageantry, Olivia is no stranger to competition. She has danced since age two, danced competitively since age five, and dreams of being a Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader.
After obtaining her Criminal Justice certificate and graduating in May of 2023, Olivia plans to major in pre-law or forensics with a minor in Spanish with the long-term goal of becoming a lawyer.
Although this is Olivia’s first pageant, she has enjoyed her experience thus far and looks forward to competing in the future.
“Becoming Miss Teen Fayetteville Dogwood Festival has been one of my biggest accomplishments to date,” she shared. “I have very high expectations for myself, and it pushes me to work hard. Accomplishing the goals I set for myself is very rewarding and worth the challenge in the end.”
Miss Fayetteville — Janiya Pipkin
The winner of 2022’s Miss Fayetteville Dogwood Festival crown is 21-year-old Methodist University senior Janiya Pipkin.
Initially hesitant, the criminal justice major and licensed cosmetologist entered this year’s competition after a chance encounter with Miss North Carolina and at her mother’s urging.
“I’ve done pageants before but stopped when I was seven or eight,” she confessed. Honestly, my mom encouraged me to enter. I’ve always dreamed of competing for the Miss America or Miss USA title and felt this would be a great place to start.”
A pastor's daughter, Janiya, is extremely involved in her church and credits her confidence and success to her faith in God. When not working as a cosmetologist, Janiya serves her church as a youth ministry leader and praise and worship leader.
In addition to pursuing her criminal justice undergraduate degree, Janiya also cheered full-time for the Methodist University Monarchs, finishing up her tenure this past February. After graduation, she intends to enter law school with the ultimate goal of becoming a judge.
Though she's been out of the pageant game for a while, Janiya says the main takeaway is the confidence competing in pageants gives her.
“The thing I love about competing is the boost of confidence it gives you,” Janiya said. “For any pageant, whether you win or lose, you’re putting yourself out there to be judged, and it’s important to know that no matter what happens, you’re still a winner. It takes a lot of courage, strength and confidence to put yourself out there.”
Another aspect of pageantry Janiya enjoys is the camaraderie and the opportunity to act as a role model for young women on a similar path.
“We all had nerves and jitters, but we came together in support of one another — no matter who won. One thing I would tell the young women behind me is this: ‘you can do it.’ I tell them to remember the process, the excitement they feel backstage, and not to let anyone take those feelings of joy away. No matter what, you have to keep telling yourself you can do it.”