by Reginald Hall Jr.
“Is this picture going to Hollywood or model casting,” jokes an elderly woman preparing to photograph Amber-Joi Watkins.
Crowned Miss Pennsylvania USA 2011 in November, Watkins — a Mt. Airy native and Springside School alumna — easily handles attention. Watkins’ new title offers opportunities to engage with many new people. For example, the 26-year-old University of Pennsylvania graduate recently connected with people at an autism walk-a-thon in Pittsburgh, made a speech at a New Year’s event for the Organization of Chinese-Americans, and spoke on-air at Philadelphia radio station Power 99. Watkins embraces the responsibilities, perks and challenges associated with the title of Miss Pennsylvania, possibly because her remarkable journey to pageant queen almost didn’t occur.
As a University of Pennsylvania freshman in 2003, pageantry wasn’t on Watkins’ radar. Communication studies and pursuing a lifelong passion for dance occupied a significant portion of Watkins’ time. That year, upperclassman and fellow Penn student Camille Young captured the Miss Pennsylvania USA crown. Her win inspired Watkins to compete.
“I never thought about doing Miss Pennsylvania until I heard about her,” Watkins said. “When I saw she did it, I knew I wanted it. I didn’t have a lot of money, but there was a girl who was in one of my dance groups. So I just picked her brain and found out everything I could, and she explained the process to me.”
Miss Pennsylvania USA applicants must be at least 18 years old and less than 27 years old, never married and able to submit a $995 sponsorship fee. The money covers meal and room costs during the weekend of the pageant, marketing and production of the Miss Pennsylvania USA competition, and also a year-round staff for the pageant winner. A review committee determines which Miss Pennsylvania USA hopefuls will be selected to compete based on an applicant-submitted snapshot and information form.
The review committee selected Watkins as a Miss Pennsylvania USA candidate in 2007; however, her initial elation was short-lived. In heart-breaking fashion, Watkins finished as the first runner-up to Samantha Johnson, a Temple University graduate. Coming so close to victory after months of difficult preparation left Watkins emotionally drained.
“It was my senior year of college, and I was little upset and felt a little defeated afterwards, so I stepped away [from pageant competition] for a long time,” Watkins recalled.
In 2009, the Springside grad competed again in the Miss Pennsylvania USA competition. This time, she finished as a third runner up, two places lower than her initial attempt in 2007. The second defeat left Watkins extremely disappointed, and she decided to quit her dream to win the Miss Pennsylvania USA pageant. However, once again outside support helped sustain her dream.
“I thought that was going to be my last time, and I had no intention of doing it this year,” Watkins said. “Then I was encouraged to try for Miss Pennsylvania USA 2011 by Gina Cerelli, who was Miss Pennsylvania 2010. Gina told me, ‘It’s your last chance to do it and your last year of eligibility.’” At the time, Watkins was 26 years old, giving her one final opportunity to compete for Miss Pennsylvania USA before she would no longer be able to meet the under-27 requirement.
The decision to stick with pageantry turned out to be the right choice for Watkins. In November, 2010, she was crowned Miss Pennsylvania USA 2011 at a weekend-long competition in Pittsburgh. Tears fell from Watkins’ eyes as photographers took pictures of her wearing a sparkling tiara. Winning was personally satisfying to Watkins after so many prior struggles but also because she became the third African-American woman to win the Miss Pennsylvania USA title behind Camille Young and Samantha Johnson. The achievement remains special for Watkins, but she hopes she’s celebrated for more than her ethnicity.
“There are so many examples of some great role models in the media today, so it feels good to be on the cleaner side of things,” Watkins said. “And you know, I hope that girls, no matter what race they are, look at me as a role model. And that they know I’m also an Ivy League-educated-woman, an entrepreneur and a serious business woman.”
Winning Miss Pennsylvania USA 2011 has helped open new doors for Watkins professionally. She recently shot a commercial with the Pennsylvania lottery and also booked a modeling gig with QVC.
One of Watkins’ most significant projects involves adding content and marketing for her Philadelphia entertainment Website Phillyin.com. The Website focuses on the latest styles, trends and buzz around the Philadelphia region.
“I believe people think, ‘Oh, you won Miss Pennsylvania; you are a celebrity now,’” Watkins said. “It doesn’t work like that. I did a ton of work to get here, and now that I’m here, there is ton of more work to do. I don’t think people understand how much work goes into it.”
For instance, maintaining a strict diet and workout regimen helped to sculpt her 5’7” frame. Watkins exercised six days per week without eating any red meat, beef or pork. As a former Philadelphia 76ers dancer, Watkins enjoyed the heavy exercise, but she discovered that choosing the right wardrobe also takes effort and a strong attention to detail.
“You have to partner with these exclusive designers, and you have to meet with them. I have to make sure every item of clothing looks great because I only get to say one or two words to Donald Trump.”
Currently, Watkins is preparing for the Miss USA pageant held in Las Vegas on June 19 of this year. Donald Trump owns the competition, which provides a prestigious platform for the contestants.
“I’d love to continue to encourage girls to be independent and get an education — just empowering women in general. We are as able as men, and there is no reason you can’t be anything you want to be.”
Watkins’ can-do spirit is an attribute she shares with both siblings. Her 30-year-old sister, Mirenda Watkins, a University of Pennsylvania graduate and Friends’ Select alumna, works as a public defender. Not to be outdone, 21-year-old Henry Watkins travels internationally a high-profile model.
For more information, visit Watkins’ own entertainment company’s site at www.phillyin.com/about-phillyin/amber.