Jada Samuel’s grandmother, Esther Harris Irby, grew up in Greenville’s Southernside community during the segregation era.

Now, her granddaughter is Miss South Carolina.

In January 2024, Samuel will go on to compete in Miss America’s 2024 pageant.

Samuel, 26, is the fourth Black woman to win the pageant. She hopes it will set the stage for more inclusivity in Miss South Carolina and in pageants, across the board. The Greenville native knows this is an opportunity that few Black women have had before.

Jada Samuel is crowned Miss South Carolina 2023 at Columbia's Township Hall on Saturday, June 24.

“I’m thrilled about what it means to little girls who look like me,” she said.

Samuel also recognizes the importance of her family and the trailblazers before her. She said her mother, Melody Samuel, and cousin Stacey Gardin, have been instrumental in shaping who she is today. She also credits Jil Littlejohn Bostick and Dr. Nika White.

Samuel said she watched these women champion others while being themselves, which has shaped the way she has approached life.

Meet Miss South Carolina, Jada Samuel

Samuel attended Hughes Academy for middle school and Southside High School. She then attended the University of South Carolina’s (USC) School of Journalism and Mass Communications before starting her career as a lifestyle host and producer at Columbia’s WIS news station.

Samuel said it was ‘crazy’ being the interviewee given her reporting experience.

“It’s crazy. I never expected this. I think I’m excited about it. Like, ‘was I always speaking in sound bites? Is this how this works?'” Samuel said.

Samuel, who has competed in Miss South Carolina six times, describes her journey into pageantry as “unique.”

“I started competing after watching my cousin [Stacey Gardin] compete at a state pageant in South Carolina in a different system, and I was amazed by what I saw and was inspired,” Samuel said. “I decided to compete at my high school pageant and did well.”

Samuel earned $60,000 in scholarship money at the June 24 contest in Columbia. Through the years, she said she has collected over $85,000 in scholarship money.

In August, she will be receiving her Master in Business from Louisiana State University-Shreveport with a focus in Marketing. She said this degree has been completely paid for through scholarships she received from the Miss South Carolina Scholarship Organization.

The remaining scholarship money will be used to pay off student loan debt. Samuel said she may pursue another degree or complete a certificate program in the future.

“I think that’s just incredible to be able to say that a hobby or passion like pageantry can be beneficial in so many ways outside of what people think,” Samuel said.

To follow her journey, visit her Instagram.

How Jada Samuel’s won Miss SC

At the pageant, she presented “Amazing Grace,” a reimagined version of Angela Bassett’s BET Icon award acceptance speech on finding purpose. In past competitions, she has spoken about topics such as sexual assault and Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church shooting.

“I always want to have an underlying message in each of my stories,” she said. “That is the part that I am most excited about ― delivering a talent that is new, exciting and meaningful.”

Jada Samuel is crowned Miss South Carolina 2023 at Columbia's Township Hall on Saturday, June 24.

Samuel said Journalism school gives her the ability to speak publicly about a wide range of topics. Her background in speech, debate and theater aids in her onstage ease during the pageant’s conversations and questions.

She is the first to win the competition using dramatic monologues in the organization’s 86-year history. Previously, she won the title of Best Evening Gown.

She is also the oldest contestant to ever win. Last summer, she thought she had competed in her final Miss SC competition after placing second runner-up as Miss Columbia. Previous rules stated that contestants can’t be older than 26 years old.

A recent rule change gave Samuel an opening as the age limit was upped to 28. She took this as her sign to compete again and chase after her dream.

“I was like, ‘OK, is this a sign? Do I need to go back and compete?'” Samuel said in a recent interview. “And I did, and obviously, it was perfect timing.”

The woman behind the crown: Jada Samuel’s favorite things

Samuel said she does her own makeup before pageants. However, she has a favorite hairstylist.

“I love Alysia Nikole Beauty – she does my hair. She does my highlights and knows how to keep my hair healthy, so I do love going to her,” Samuel said.

Also, no matter where Samuel travels throughout the state, she always finds herself at her favorite restaurant, Cantina 76. Her favorite menu item is the Peruvian shrimp tacos. She also enjoys Thai cuisine.

A headshot of Miss South Carolina 2023, Jada Samuel, also known as Miss Bridge City.

Her favorite S.C. boutiques? You can find Samuel shopping at Monkee’s of the West End and Vestique, both located in Greenville, along with Miss Cocky in Columbia.

Samuel enjoys spending time with family and friends, throwing movie nights, crocheting or binging a good Netflix series.

Samuel’s plans for the future, advice

In 2014, Samuel founded iShapeMe Inc., a nonprofit mentoring organization that empowers young women to shape themselves mentally, physically and spiritually.

Samuel plans to use her platform to grow the list of mentoring programs available for young people living in underserved areas throughout the state.

Samuel believes the beauty and fashion industries should be more inclusive. All sizes, shapes and hair textures should be represented, she said. A budding entrepreneur herself, Samuel is interested in creating her own pajama line.

Want to be in pageants? Samuel says, “Be yourself.”

“Just do it without thinking what the judges will expect and do it because it means something to you in your community,” she said.

Nina Tran covers trending topics for the Greenville News. Reach her via email at ntran@gannett.com