Cultural history will be made tonight in a college town in southern Virginia when a lissome 22-year-old student in a tiara hosts a car show and singing contest modelled on American Idol. Nikole Churchill will look good, and on the evidence of the past few days will handle the microphone with aplomb.
However, she will have to be ready for hecklers. She is the first non-black Homecoming Queen in her university’s history and not everyone is happy that she won the title. Her victory this month triggered a beauty pageant walkout and veiled accusations of black racism from the aggrieved new Miss Hampton University. She also wrote a long public letter to President Obama, saying: “I feel as though you could relate to my situation.”
Hampton University, at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, is one of more than 80 historically black colleges in the US whose student populations are only gradually coming to reflect the diversity they exist to promote, largely because non-blacks have been slow to apply to them.
Ms Churchill was hardly known to the university’s main student body until she made the shortlist of ten contestants for a title that involves a year of public duties. A panel of five judges named her the winner after a two-hour pageant in which she spoke of the importance of mentoring girls on self-esteem and “body image”, and performed a Hawaiian hula in a pink-and-white swimsuit.
The other nine contestants were black. Two of them wore scowls rather than smiles for the traditional portraits of winner and runners-up and as the pictures were being taken, several dozen spectators walked out of the university’s main auditorium. The following day Ms Churchill was heckled at a college football game and a previous Miss Hampton University said she was “very shocked” there was a white winner. “We’ve never had one before,” Patrece Parson said.
Ms Churchill, whose father is from Guam, was sufficiently offended to write to President Obama, whose mother settled in Hawaii. “I am sad to say that my crowning was not widely accepted . . . the true reason for the disapproval was because of the colour of my skin. I am not African-American.”
She said she was honoured to have been nicknamed “Lil Obama”, and invited the President to visit the university to help to spread some “aloha spirit” around the campus. Mr Obama has not responded, but fellow students have, bridling at the notion that Ms Churchill and the President have something in common. Brittany Riddock, a second-year student, told The Washington Post there was “no comparison between a black man becoming President and a white woman winning a beauty pageant at a black school”.
The president of the university’s student body summoned Ms Churchill to explain herself onstage at a special meeting in the student centre theatre. She took the opportunity to apologise and thank the majority of students for their support.
She will need it. As the leader of an all-black “court” of runners-up and would-be beauty queens, she must host a fashion show tomorrow and be sworn in at a full-blown coronation on Wednesday. She may find, as a columnist in the neighbouring Newport News wrote, that her skin “isn’t too white, but too thin”.