Skip to main Content
Arts and Entertainment

Bringing Inupiat culture to the beauty pageant stage

  • Author: Jillian Rogers
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published November 23, 2014

KOTZEBUE -- When Denali Whiting sat down in a Fairbanks movie theater last month to watch "When the Game Stands Tall," she didn't even get through the previews.

An idea popped into her head -- to compete in the upcoming Miss Alaska USA pageant -- and she hasn't been able to think about much else since.

For years now, Kotzebue's Whiting has taken center stage at a host of beauty and talent competitions. She has held the titles of Miss Alaska Teen USA, Miss Teen Arctic Circle and Miss Arctic Circle and has garnered many awards within those events for her congeniality and traditional knowledge. But she thought she was done with her life on stage.

Until that day at the movies.

"I just started thinking about the pageant and competing again, and during that whole movie, I swear it was four hours long, I was trying to be quiet but I was really antsy," she said. "I honestly can't say what brought it on."

But the more she thought about it, the more excited she became. Whiting knows from past experience that one of the big components is fitness and health. She looked down at the tub of popcorn on her lap that day and started counting calories.

When the movie was over, she immediately got to work researching what it would take to compete in the December competition. The Miss Alaska USA event is the preliminary to the Miss USA contest, with the winner of that going on to Miss Universe.

"I texted my mom and told her I wanted to do the pageant again, and that's where it all started."

Now Whiting, who is set to graduate from the University of Alaska Fairbanks with a degree in Alaska Native Studies this spring, is working on raising money. Entry fees, evening gowns, shoes, a contest-worthy two-piece swimsuit and airfare have added up to a hefty price tag for the 22-year-old. So she's reaching out online and to friends, family and businesses to help her reach her goal.

Whiting knows that beauty contests get mixed reviews from the general public, but for her, taking center stage is about much more than looks. The confidence of succeeding after working toward such a lofty goal, while at the same time being able to showcase her Inupiat values and Northwest Arctic lifestyle, is rewarding, she said.

"Growing up in Kotzebue and growing up going to camp and being really involved with my grandparents and members of the community has helped me become who I am."

Her Alaska Native Studies program at UAF has also helped her gain confidence to advocate for all Native cultures, not just her own, she said.

"I definitely think that will give me an edge, and I've gotten a lot of support in the different communities in rural Alaska."

Now that her online fundraising campaign is up and running, Whiting is focusing on a healthy diet and exercise to get her mind and body in shape for the event. She primarily eats a diet of traditional foods, including Kotzebue Sound chum salmon, salmon eggs, seal oil, seal meat and dried caribou meat.

She has cleaned out her kitchen, removing all the processed "junk" food.

"I don't have a set diet and I'm not taking supplements, I'm just eating healthier and drinking a lot of water," she said. "Getting in shape is probably the biggest hurdle."

Miss Alaska hopefuls are judged on their physical appearance in the swimsuit portion, elegance and how they carry themselves in the evening gown portion and personality in the interview with the judges, according to Whiting. Unlike her past competitions, there is no talent portion in the upcoming statewide event.

She's also boning up on her current events, although she's a self-proclaimed newshound who loves to read.

Besides the beauty portion, there are interviews with the judges and an on-stage question portion where the contestants could be asked about pretty much anything.

"They want to see how prepared you are and how you handle yourself in various situations," she said.

If she moves on from the Miss Alaska USA competition, the next step is the huge national event, usually held in Las Vegas. Leading up to the televised Miss USA contest, contestants from each state spend weeks preparing in the city where the main event is held. It's a grueling schedule, Whiting said, but one that she thinks about before drifting off to sleep each night.

The winner of Miss Alaska has about five months to prepare for the national pageant with the help of coaches and other support staff.

But for now, she's trying to stay focused on the upcoming state contest.

She's recruited her parents to help her pick out the perfect dress for the evening gown facet, one of the more fun duties on a long list of forms to fill out and kickboxing classes to attend.

"Even my dad got involved," Whiting said. "I knew he would support me, but I didn't expect him to to the extent he is."

She's also been practicing walking in high-heeled shoes -- a job in itself considering heels in Fairbanks and Kotzebue aren't popular.

The whole experience of working toward her night on stage and the confidence gained after success is something that Whiting thrives on.

"You have to go on that stage and put yourself out there in front of a lot of people and do that with poise and self-confidence and that alone is a huge, huge accomplishment."

Winners of the major competitions receive scholarships to further their education, which is why most women choose to compete as well. Plus, the potential to travel around the state and the country to speak and learn at various functions is something that Whiting is excited about.

"It's not just 'you win and you take a lot of pictures' if you win, you go to events and help out in the community," she said.

"There's a lot more to it than a pretty face and nice body."

Local news matters.

Support independent, local journalism in Alaska.