Juanita Brown Ingram, the Tennessee-born, Singapore-based attorney, was recently crowned Mrs. Universe, which took took place in August last year in Miami, Florida. According to Ebony, Brown Ingram’s universe title win has been years in the making. In 2007, she became the first African-American woman to compete and win the title of Mrs. Indiana. In 2012, she became the first African-American Ms. World International. She also has the titles Mrs. Great Britain World 2011, Mrs. UK Universe 2013 and Mrs. UK International 2014 under her belt as well.
Despite being an attorney, author and actress, Juanita began volunteering for a women’s charity named Dress for Success in the United States in 2008, and went on to found the London branch in 2015. The charity’s aim is to empower women by providing them with a support network and professional development tools. I had the opportunity to find out more about her developing a structure to help women professionally and emotionally, the impacts of the pandemic and embracing the accessibility of a virtual world.
Q: Please tell us about your journey to Asia and what made you decide to take part in pageantry?
After I became a practicing attorney almost 20 years ago, I was frequently asked to speak to girl groups, especially in urban schools because some of those young ladies had never seen an African-American female attorney before. This was many years after Claire Huxtable on The Cosby Show, but it would be years yet before Scandal or Suits was on TV. These young ladies needed a vision of who they could be. So I started speaking and mentoring, and I prayed about how I could inspire them to invest in their inner growth when their whole world was focused on the exterior. Suddenly it hit me, like a voice from beyond: Pageants. I’d never been in a pageant in my life, and I never had the desire to do so. But I couldn’t deny that if I showed up to talk about goals and success with a glittery sash and rhinestones on my head, those teenage girls would sit up and listen to anything I had to say. So I entered the Mrs. Indiana United States pageant in 2007.
I didn’t care about some judge telling me I was pretty, but I wanted that title to help me get something else. The girls and young women I was meeting needed to hear a message of empowerment and possibility, and if that sparkly crown was going to get through to them, I wanted it. I wanted all of them to know that intelligence is beautiful and to offer up a balanced vision of success and womanhood. Believe it or not, I won. I kept on winning. By the time my husband transferred to London for his job, I was competing internationally.
Those experiences opened a lot of doors for me to pursue other interests (like acting and hosting a talk show), but better yet, they grew my understanding of myself and how to relate to other women. Best of all, they opened the ears and hearts of girls and young women all over the world. When the time came for us to move again to Taiwan in 2019 and then later to Singapore in 2021 in support of my husband’s job promotion, I knew it was the right time to launch my own non-profit production company and create the show that had been brewing inside of me since we lived in London. It has been an amazing journey.
Q: When did you set up and what spurred your passion for the project?
I started the Dress for Success affiliates in London in 2015 and the affiliate in Chattanooga, TN in 2020. I recently became an official Ambassador for the Singapore affiliate in 2022.
Dress for Success is a global network of charities with 141 affiliates that span 23 countries.
My passion for helping to empower women into economic independence started almost 15 years ago. In 2008, I was faced with department-wide downsizing (redundancy) while concurrently devoting time as a Dress for Success volunteer with an American affiliate. Even with my successful and established career as an attorney (possessing a J.D. and M.B.A.), I was not shielded from the devastating economic crisis of 2008.
By bearing witness, as a volunteer with Dress for Success, to the women who were overcoming immense adversity in their own unemployment, I was reinvigorated when I went through my stint of unemployment. I was blessed with outstanding professional skill sets and impeccable credentials, and still, during the 2008 great recession, myself and other professional women were not immune from the economic vicissitudes of challenge and change.
In my time as a volunteer, I had already become acquainted with the then-CEO Joi Gordon. When I relocated to London for my husband’s job promotion in 2011, I stayed in contact with Gordon who later asked me to start a new non-profit affiliate in London. Given my high regard and immense passion for the charity’s mission, which aligned quite well with my own experiences, I felt confident that it was truly an undertaking that I was not only equipped but also divinely purposed to do. When the divine purpose is aligned with a powerful commitment to personal will, the result is a mission-driven success.
The work, planning, and coordination were incredibly challenging in the beginning, as is with all startups. One must go through the natural maturation process of building grassroots functionality from the ground up, including fundraising, searching for viable properties, creating a fictional and mission-critical team, and building everything from a visionary inventory to a viable and productive volunteer base. While there were certainly days that I questioned my ability to rise to the challenge and continue our mission-critical goals, I was inevitably reminded and reinforced by what had already driven me this far; those who had far less, many who were holding on for the one ounce of encouragement and advocacy that would sustain a rebirth of hope and life achievement.
Q: What kind of women reach out for help?
I am often asked this question. A few years ago, our mission statement set forth that we aimed to help women coming from socioeconomically ‘disadvantaged’ backgrounds; however as the enormous changes to the global economy broadened its impact on our society and especially women, our mission also evolved so that we currently, we serve the ‘unemployed and unempowered’ woman.
As we have experienced and encountered an incredible diversity of backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses from our clients, we have been privileged to serve a much broader demographic spectrum many of whom emerge from extraordinary and overwhelming circumstances of human trafficking, domestic violence, homelessness, addiction, and incarceration. We also have the privilege to serve women who are recent graduates from higher learning institutions.
Our dedicated work includes mothers returning to the world of work, or seasoned executives who have been market classified as job skill redundant and who may find it necessary to polish their interpersonal confidence and enhance their soft skills and interview skills-sets. We anticipate escalating demand for our services as we navigate the new economic norm. Preliminary surveys reflect that statistically, Covid-19 has negatively impacted unemployment in women more than any other demographic group.
Q: How does personal grooming and dressing affect one’s confidence?
It has been statistically proven that when you look better and feel better about your outward appearance, you perform better. That is why at Dress for Success, we like to say that we dress women from the inside out because true confidence comes from within – it comes from a sense of self-worth.
Q: Any quick dressing or grooming tips that one can immediately do to boost one’s confidence?
Always start with personal hygiene and your foundation garments – what is underneath your garments is just as important as the garments you wear. This is especially important and true for women. Getting sized for the right bra size and engaging in self-care for the condition of your skin is vital.
Q: How do you feel your current reign as Mrs Universe 2022 will help further your cause in this project?
I decided to come out of retirement and compete in pageantry again with a specific goal of lending the title to bring greater awareness and enhance fundraising initiatives/outcomes for Dress for Success and the women we serve. Focusing on the mission of the charity, I became motivated to embark upon my own wellness journey and in doing so, I stood on stage 20kg lighter and confident in my ability to reign with purpose.
Having used my previous pageant titles (Ms. World International 2012) to raise a considerable amount of money for various affiliates in the US and UK, I am committed to doing even more as Mrs. Universe and I am currently engaged in fundraising initiatives for Singapore, London, Chattanooga, and Indianapolis affiliates. I look forward to helping empower more women to become economically independent and inspired to be their best selves.
Q: What other individual success stories that you are particularly proud of besides winning the crown?
I am most proud of my children and being a mother. My daughter is 15 and my son will soon be 13 – they are the reasons I was created and I consider it a gift to have been the vessel chosen to bring them into this world. Motherhood gives clarity and motivation to be a positive and authentic example to them. I consider it an honour and a privilege to help them successfully navigate through this world.
I also have another “baby” which is my non-profit production company Purpose Productions. We have the second season of our show The Expats International Ingrams, debuting on multiple streaming platforms on 1 Feb in honour of Black History Month in the U.S. PURPOSE Productions Inc. is a 501(c)3 media company created in 2018 to produce content, film, documentaries, TV series, books, seminars, and other forms of impactful media uniquely dedicated to the uncompromising empowerment of women and underserved, marginalised people.
Purpose Productions utilises the visual arts as a vehicle for challenging negative stereotypes and providing cross-cultural experiences for audiences throughout the world. We believe that we can create opportunities through film and visual content that will change the established systemic discriminatory paradigm and the marginalisation of women and people of colour worldwide that is ever-present in media. Film and the arts have always been and remain powerful tools to help bring about social change.
We are also a conduit for sharing a balanced depiction of diverse cultures and powerful under-represented narratives while serving to foster educational and cross-cultural exposure for global audiences. We use our content to cultivate a broader and deeper perspective on pressing global issues through our past, present, and future projects. With our current and future pipeline of projects, we create job opportunities for local film industry talent in various global settings. Our goal is to create media by women, about women, but for everyone.
The Expats Series is a Black and Indigenous People of Colour (BIPOC)-led, unscripted docu-series about Black life abroad; giving never-before-seen insights into the many diverse facets of life abroad through cross-cultural exchanges. The series radically alters the reality TV model for Black-casted unscripted TV and directly combats the distorted representation of BIPOC people globally. The series introduces a new genre of “smart-reality tv” via production and presentation, dismantling dangerous racialised stereotypes by setting forth positive and entertaining depictions of Black Americans succeeding and thriving abroad. Again, Season 2 (much of which was shot in Singapore and showcases the diversity and beauty of this country) will debut on multiple streaming platforms including Amazon US & UK on 1 Feb 2023, in honour of Black History Month in the US.
Q: You’ve recently lost a lot of weight. What spurred you to do so and what advice do you have for those who also want to do so?
In 2019, I went to have my first mammogram. No one expects to get a call back but I did and after many consultations, breast MRIs, and follow ups, I had to undergo a significant surgery and the removal of tissue and reconstruction of my breasts. That surgery was major and so was the medication I was on afterward. I gained a ton of weight and I needed physio to regain strength. However, right after this surgery we moved to Taiwan and shortly after arriving to Taiwan, the pandemic hit. I didn’t get the physio that I truly needed until we moved to Singapore two years later. By then, I was really struggling with my weight gain, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol levels, and other health concerns.
Arriving in Singapore was like a breath of fresh air and I began to see a doctor regarding my path back to wellness. I was prescribed physiotherapy for my upper body rehabilitation and I knew that it was the right time for me to come out of retirement for a pageant competition. I lost a total of 45lbs or 20kg and moreover, I regained control of my blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and other health related factors. I am still continuing my physio training and working out daily, it is a great way to also manage stress. I walk 5-7km a day and it is a wonderful way to explore the beauty of Singapore.
Pageantry has always been a great motivator for me to focus on myself and my health. Swimsuit competitions are about physical fitness and it helped motivate me to show up as my best self. When I stood on stage, I knew that I had fought and made the necessary changes to my diet and daily habits to stand there as my absolute best self. It didn’t matter if they crowned me or not – I already won in my mind because I stood there healthy and whole.
Q: What would you say to someone who is struggling with their body image?
I would encourage them to focus on wellness, not weight. We are all beautiful and perfect. You don’t need to look at images in the media that have often been altered in order to create a standard of beauty that is unrealistic. Real confidence comes from loving yourself fully. If there is something you don’t like truly ask yourself why. Is it a valid reason or from external pressures? Come to a place where you truly love everything about yourself and you do that by ceasing to compare yourself to others. We are all uniquely made and we are different for a reason. Embrace your perceived imperfections – speak lovingly and kindly to them and know that being healthy is the biggest beauty factor that you can have.
Q: Any last words for our readers?
I would like to express my continuous gratitude for the outpouring of support during my reign as Mrs. Universe and encourage all who support women and their economic independence and encourage readers to find their local affiliate of Dress for Success and make a monetary donation toward the empowerment of another woman. Together we can assure women thrive both professionally and personally across the globe.
I’d like to thank Juanita for her time and for more information about Dress for Success, do visit their website https://dressforsuccess.org.
Image: Juanita Brown Ingram