By winning Miss U.S. Virgin Islands in 2012, Aniska Tonge competed for Miss America 2013 and is about to represent the U.S. Virgin Islands in Miss World 2014.
Yet Tonge said she didn’t grow up a princess.
“I’m not one of those girls who’s done it since she was 2,” she said. “You wouldn’t have seen me on ‘Toddlers and Tiaras.’”
It wasn’t until after graduating from USF in 2012, with a bachelor’s in psychology and a minor in women and gender studies, that she began competing in beauty pageants.
Tonge enters pageants to win scholarship money for graduate school and to raise her confidence.
She said she once struggled with anxiety and depression in high school, so she wrote a book as a blueprint for young people facing similar challenges.
“I was a shell,” she said.
Pageants like Miss America allow her to promote mental wellbeing on a greater scale, but she said she finds herself fighting the beauty queen stereotype.
“I hate people thinking I’m not educated or intellectual, or that I don’t do anything outside of pageants,” she said. “I’m not a person who has no sense of ambition other than looking good in a swimsuit.”
Upon returning home from Miss America, Tonge said she realized she still wanted to pursue a meaningful career.
“Everything I’ve experienced has shown me my responsibility to mentor the girls coming up under me,” she said. “It would have been ridiculous for me to say, ‘I did Miss America, now I’m done.’”
So she founded the non-profit organization 4Her in December 2013 with a commitment to teaching young girls about professional positivity, healthy relationships, community involvement and academic achievement.
Since 4Her’s founding, Tonge has visited every high school on the Virgin Island of St. Thomas, sharing the lessons she learned while competing in pageants.
“I thought that if I was pretty enough, it would let me love myself,” she said. “How I was trying to love myself was the wrong way to do it.”
Devon Travern, the editor of Live Inspired Magazine, said Tonge’s own hard work doesn’t escape those around her.
“It’s amazing because she self-funded it,” Travern said. “It was on her dime because she believes in it. She connects with (the girls) on a personal level and has an influential conversation with them.”
Travern said Tonge raised $2,000 to purchase homecoming and prom dresses for girls on the islands of St. Thomas and St. Croix.
4Her also hosts seminars with motivational speakers on relationships, professional development and peer pressure. Tonge said she hopes to start a scholarship program through the foundation.
Tonge is also focusing on getting ready to leave for London in November, where she will compete for the title of Miss World in December. She will compete in all six segments of the competition.
In preparation, she is working out everyday, doing at least one mock interview per week and working with her vocal coach.
Though she said she is ready for Miss World more than she was for Miss America, this is likely her last pageant.
“I don’t want to be 40 and still competing in pageants,” she said. “I don’t want to be Mrs. World.”
After the competition, Tonge plans to spend a few weeks in Europe before moving to Atlanta where she will pursue graduate degrees in international communication and theater.
“(Pageants) judge you on how you look: ‘do you fit this part?’ I’m not going to win everything because I’m not always going to have that look,” she said. “Life is like that, but that’s not what matters most.”
Tonge admitted her life isn’t perfect, but she acknowledges the role pageants have had in helping her become the person she is today.
“I still have so much to learn about myself. I’m still trying to figure things out,” she said. “But (pageants) have helped me figure out where I’m supposed to be and what I’m supposed to do.”