Nova Stevens grew up watching the Miss Universe pageant every year. But when she first applied to compete for Canada in 2014, she didn’t expect much. After all, Juliette Powell was (and is) the the only Black woman to win the Miss Universe Canada title—and that was in 1989. Even so, Stevens managed to make the top 12 even with no prior pageant experience. She was proud of herself. But she wanted more. “I feel like when you compete, you get this high, and you just want to go back and correct whatever you did wrong in the past,” says Stevens. “I had to challenge myself.”

In 2018, she was back with a new attitude and a new (old) look—her natural hair. “For my first pageant, I had my weave on so my hair was straight,” says Stevens, “but the second time I wanted to be sure that I was authentic, that I was representing me.” She hoped that wearing her hair natural would inspire other young Black women. Hair out, garments ready and competitive spirit burning, she set out to snag the title. She made it to the top 20.

xPhoto by Kate Whyte.

“I was devastated because a part of me felt that my hair had something to do with it,” says Stevens. “That may not be true, but I did feel that way because I was more prepared that time than I was the previous year.” She decided she wouldn’t compete again, and told her friends and family so. Her dream to transform the pageant world from the inside was quashed—until last year, when Zozibini Tunzi of South Africa earned the Miss Universe crown.

“She had my skin, my hair colour, my hair texture, my hair length,” Stevens remembers. “I saw myself through her, that that’s why representation is so important.” She was back in for 2020.

You might recognize Stevens from her activist work—she and Shamika Mitchell organized Vancouver’s Juneteenth march, and Stevens is a dedicated advocate for Black Lives Matter. She is also a spokesperson for Keep6ix (which helps underprivileged youth who have been wrongly accused of criminal activity to overcome barriers), volunteers for Operation Smile (an organization that raises awareness for cleft lip and palate solutions) is an ambassador for One Girl Can (which empowers women through education) and is raising awareness for Feed it Forward (whose missions include eradicating food waste and feeding Canadians who are food insecure). She’s aware of the history and stigma around pageants (“People think it’s just beautiful girls aimlessly strutting down a runway in bikinis,” she quips) and determined to be a part of the positive change. “These are intelligent, empowered women who have voices,” says Stevens, “and pageants are empowering—winning Miss Universe Canada will give me a platform to continue doing what I’m already doing: advocating for Black Lives Matter.”

xPhoto courtesy of Nova Stevens.

While pageantry gives women a platform, it also leaves them vulnerable to hurtful and discriminatory judgment. Stevens says strangers on the internet have not held back commenting on her physical attributes, telling her to get a nose job and “sending poop emojis because of my skin colour” (which really speaks to the maturity level of racist a-holes).

While objectively disgusting and dumb, comments like these also work to fuel her fire. Stevens knows the power of representation—after all, it’s because of Tunzi’s win that she’s back competing. “It’s important to get to know people who don’t resemble you, because when you do that it creates a better understanding, and I think hate comes from a lack of understanding,” the Vancouverite says. Her goals stretch far beyond the pageant world. “I want to show other girls of colour, specifically girls who have dark skin and non-Eurocentric features, that you don’t have to fit the status quo to be considered beautiful or to excel in industries that are predominantly white,” Stevens says. “That’s why it is so important for me to win—with natural hair.” 

xPhoto by Ianaya Flavelle.

You can watch Stevens compete in the Miss Universe Canada prelims on October 22 and the finals on the 24 on CTV. “I really want everyone to watch the finals,” shares Stevens, “I have something to say, and I think that the world will like it.” The winner of Miss Universe Canada goes on to represent the country in the worldwide Miss Universe pageant.