Using beauty pageants as her bully pulpitAshley Johnson has struggled with bullying her entire life.
By: Riham Feshir, Woodbury Bulletin
Ashley Johnson has struggled with bullying her entire life.
The problem hit even closer to home when bullying drove her 22-year-old brother to suicide last year.
The Woodbury 20-year-old has been selected Miss Woodbury International, which gives her the opportunity to compete in the Miss Minnesota International Pageant March 10 and March 11 at St. Cloud State University.
The platform-based pageant is what inspired her to compete. She wants to run focusing on bullying prevention and how to stop it from taking the lives of teens and young adults.
Johnson started competing in pageants at 10 years old. It’s how she came alive on stage, how she became ambitious and daring, she said.
“That is how I came out of my shell,” Johnson said.
Though she was slowly building confidence and self-esteem, the bullying didn’t stop during her teen years.
“I was bullied my whole life,” Johnson said. “When I was 15, I wasn’t going to yield to it anymore, I was going to stand up to it.
“I compete because I have a passion for my platform which is ‘Bullying Stops Now.’”
She won Miss Minnesota Junior Teen that year and never stopped competing.
Johnson was born completely deaf in one ear and had a speech impediment, she said.
Whether she was going to school in St. Paul or the suburbs, she stood out among the rest because she looked different.
“She had the curly hair, the Asian eyes and the fair skin,” Johnson’s mother Vanessa said of her daughter’s mixed Latin and African American heritage. “The girls were just mean.”
It was more ignorance than anything, Vanessa Johnson added. No matter where she sent her daughter to school, whether it was a culturally-diverse neighborhood or not, kids weren’t nice to her.
“I was bullied because I was adopted, too,” Ashley Johnson said. “Some people you tell you’re adopted and some people you don’t. You got to be selective.”
The beauty queen contestant was taken in as a foster child at 6 weeks old and adopted two years later by the Johnsons. She has five other siblings and younger nieces she strives to be a role model to.
“Everything I do, I do for my family,” she said, adding, “I have a huge family, I always think of them.”
When her brother took his own life in October 2011, it motivated her to work that much harder on her platform and keep other families from experiencing the same tragedy.
“It’s devastating,” she said. “It’s absolutely devastating when you lose somebody that close to you.
“How many lives have to be lost until we pay attention to bullying?”
Now Johnson eats, sleeps and breathes her platform. She’s involved with the Pacer’s National Bullying Prevention Center that advocated for her while she was a bullying victim. She was also part of a group of students who rallied at the Capitol this year demanding change. She is in the process of starting a nonprofit organization called “Confident Kids” and she also spearheaded an anti-bullying group while she was in middle school.
School was hard on her – “My husband and I practically lived in school because she was picked on every day, not by one, but many,” Vanessa Johnson said.
She wants to warn parents about the signs of bullying: her grades had dropped, she had “massive headaches” and she was just “not a happy person.”
Johnson wanted to prove all of those mean girls, and the teachers who didn’t believe in her for that matter, wrong, she said.
She graduated from the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists with a 3.89 G.P.A. then went on to Century College in White Bear Lake.
Ashley Johnson said she was fortunate enough to be third runner-up in last year’s Miss Minnesota International, but she’s hopeful she’ll get the title this year.
The once shy, timid, introverted girl has grown to be a confident, outspoken woman inspired to change the lives of young girls and boys.
Pageants have helped her figure out who she was, gain self-confidence and sustain it, Ashley Johnson said.
“She has bloomed to be where I want her to be and where she wants to be,” Vanessa Johnson said.
“You can come through bullying,” Ashley Johnson added.