Little Miss and Miss National Peanut Festival pageants give back to the Wiregrass

The Little Miss and Miss National Peanut Festival Pageants go well beyond the glitz and glam, empowering young women across the southeast.
Published: Nov. 9, 2023 at 5:01 PM CST
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DOTHAN, Ala. (WTVY) -The Little Miss and Miss National Peanut Festival Pageant goes beyond the glitz and glam.

It’s a competition where young women across the Southeast are empowered, involved and overall act as positive role models for all.

It all started with a single dress more than 80 years ago. Elizabeth Johnson was the first ever Miss Peanut from Headland, Alabama. She was the first queen to reign, with many, many more to follow. That purple dress that Johnson wore continues to get its spotlight, with it being on display at the annual celebration that happens at the National Peanut Festival Fairgrounds.

“Growing up, it was so surreal to watch other Miss National Peanut Festivals grace this role and impact the Wiregrass in such a large way,” Leah Whitehead said, the reigning Miss National Peanut Festival said.

Many queens went on to follow in Elizabeth Johnson’s footsteps like Leah Whitehead. Whitehead arrived to the competition as Miss Jackson County and ended the weekend as the new queen.

“It’s an opportunity to just love on the people here and to show them God’s love, to be a representative and to be someone that the little girls who were like me for someone they can look up to,” Whitehead said.

She is not reigning alone.

“It means a lot because when I won I was excited to represent the whole Wiregrass,” Ada Donaldson said.

Little Miss National Peanut Festival Ada Donaldson is from Coffee County.

“I believe it is an opportunity for a little miss to have a big sister moment with another older adult and get to really see what the next step of life could look like for them as they grow into that next role,” Mary Grace Brannon said.

The pageant builds a sisterhood which instills good qualities on both sides.

“They are a spokesperson for the agriculture peanut industry for the tri-state area of Florida, Alabama, and Georgia, but they are also role models in our community, and I think that is one of the biggest things with being Miss and Little Miss National Peanut Festival,” Mary Grace Brannon said.

Planning for the pageant weekends is not accomplished overnight. The mother-daughter duo codirectors Mary Grace and Angila Brannon said it’s a year-round task.

“We have a big Summer with the contestants, we come up with a theme, we design logos, we get all of their routines choreographed,” Angila Brannon said. “So, it’s a lot of fun, we get their trophies designed, their crowns, banners...”

This is one of the National Peanut Festival’s longest traditions. Over the past decades, it has grown with the times, and even saw itself forced to pause during the world’s hardships.

“There have been a few years due to COVID and World War II that we did not have the pageants,” Angila Brannon said. “So, this year was our 79th Miss National and Little Miss National Peanut Festival Pageant.”

In the beginning, winners were sponsored by area businesses and the contestant which sold the most tickets to the festival won the title. As years went on, the pageant evolved.

“These girls go through a lot throughout the weekend, it’s a very rigorous competition,” Mary Grace Brannon said.

Awards are given that go beyond the crown and sash. Cash scholarships to the school of choice are awarded to the top five and category winners.

During pageant weekend, contestants compete in a variety of categories such as interview, evening gown, verbal communication, on-stage questions and even peanut knowledge.

“It takes a lot of self-discovery and a lot of preparation,” Whitehead said.

Competing in the Miss National Peanut Festival Pageant is a family legacy for some.

“I am just very proud of her,” Ramona Shelton said.

Leah Whitehead and her mother Ramona Shelton are an example.

“I was a contestant 30 years ago,” Shelton said.

Years fill the gaps of their competition, but one goal stayed the same.

“For us, it’s about representing where we are from,” Shelton said. “When I competed, I had no idea what I was getting into to compete in the National Peanut Festival Pageant. I just wanted to represent my town and do the best job I could to represent the city where I was from and to do my community proud and my family proud, and that was her goal. She wanted to represent Jackson County the best way that she could and now that she is Miss National Peanut Festival, she wants to represent this area in the best way that she can.”

Donaldson also experienced growth while preparing for the big event.

“Tears were shed just to see the growth she had and the confidence that she had in herself, it was beaming,” Kristi Donaldson said.

Kristi Donaldson is Ada’s mother. She said the weekend was so much more than watching her daughter take home the title.

“I was so excited and proud of her for seeing her grow in her confidence and the friendships.” Kristi Donaldson said. “We just encouraged her that a crown on the heart is more important than the crown on the head, and that will just carry her through and uplift her friends and the other girls she is competing with.”

The National Peanut Festival Pageant puts service and agriculture to the forefront.

“I firmly believe this is an organization that is so different from anything else that you can compete in, and I believe it is an awesome opportunity for young women across the Wiregrass to really get involved in their communities and show others that, ‘Yes, we love to get dressed up and put our heels on, but it’s okay to get in there and work and volunteer in the community as well,’” Mary Grace Brannon said.

The pageants continue to instill lifelong lessons for the younger girls.

“It’s a really fun way for the Little Miss contestants to learn things about their community,” Angila Brannon said.

Where agriculture and service is at the forefront.

“I handed out the new military kids, I handed out a ‘Welcome bag’ to Coffee County and a few things that were in there was I made a book and I made a pocket hug for them that I sewed,” Ada Donaldson said.

“I call it ‘Bee a reader,’” Whitehead said. “I have always been really passionate about honeybees and agriculture, so I get to go to elementary schools and read to them about honeybees,” Whitehead said.

The pageants are a legacy, tradition, and honor here to stay.

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