This is the first in a Midlands Anchor series on Miss South Carolina contestants with local ties, focusing on the hard work, academic achievements, community contributions and passion for good causes which make the young women who compete in the pageant far more than just pretty faces.
Sydney Ford is a 2016 summa cum laude graduate of the University of South Carolina, earning her degree in just three years. She has been accepted to Emory University School of Law, one of the top 25 law schools in the country. She volunteers at Pawmetto Lifeline and helped raise more than $1.3 million for Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital as a member of the USC Dance Marathon team. She spends time talking to kids about dealing with grief after experiencing the loss of a parent herself as a child. She is also the reigning Miss Columbia, and a contestant for the title of Miss South Carolina.
Sydney, who previously competed in youth and teen pageants, understands the stereotypes associated with “pageant girls,” the belief that they earn prizes simply for beauty and often lack the brains to match. That belief is wrong, and she and her fellow contestants are living proof. “I was a little hesitant toward telling people I was Miss Columbia” on campus at USC this year, she said, laughing as she shared the story of one of her professors sharing the news of her title with a class full of fellow students. “I think a lot of people don’t understand what all goes into it.”
What goes into it is both physical and mental preparation, as well as countless volunteer hours. “It is a job. It’s a big undertaking,” Sydney said. Contestants must win a regional pageant like Miss Columbia to qualify for Miss South Carolina, and must at both pageants be prepared for an interview which could include a question about virtually any topic. It’s a test which has led to embarrassing moments for some contestants. “A lot of people immediately jump on ‘Oh, she’s a pageant girl, she’s not that smart,'” Sydney said. “That’s not fair, because you’re standing up there in front of thousands of people. Anyone could mess up.”
Sydney was a Palmetto Princess as a child, then competed twice in the Miss South Carolina Teen pageant, finishing in the top 10 both times. She could have moved immediately to the Miss South Carolina pageant from there, but chose to focus on college instead. “I took some time off because I didn’t want to jump back into Miss, just because I was 18 years old, a senior in high school, and I wanted to take the time to find out who I was and what I wanted to do and see if I did want to do Miss South Carolina,” she said.
The pageant goes far beyond what happens on stage. Each contestant has a platform, a cause which she supports. Sydney’s was born out of tragedy. I lost my dad when I was 10 years old,” she explained. “He died in the middle of the night, completely unexpected. Through the grieving process, I was 10 years old, honestly I had no idea what to expect.” She works now to help children going through grief themselves.
.”So many people experience grief through various situations, and it’s something that a lot of people are uncomfortable talking about,” she said. “I wanted to make sure to reach out to children who would be experiencing grief, and to go into schools and talk to them about my personal story and let them know that they’re not alone.”
She’s found that the crown and sash open many doors, giving her opportunities to talk to young people and making many of them more comfortable talking to her. “They don’t mind opening up to me,” she said. “It’s amazing what you can do just being Miss Columbia. That’s part of the reason I want to be Miss South Carolina. I want to have the opportunity to go to children all around the state.” She keeps in touch with several students who had recently experienced the death of a loved one and shared with her after hearing her story.
“A lot of people don’t realize children grieve in an entirely different way, and they don’t know how to talk about it, and sometimes they just keep it bottled in,” Sydney said. Win or lose in the pageant, she plans to continue working for the cause which means so much to her. Child Grief Awareness Day is Nov. 19, and she wants “to spread awareness of that day and let people know that there is a day dedicated to making sure children that are going through the grief process are reached out to and that someone is there for them.”
Sydney and all the Miss South Carolina contestants also work to support Children’s Miracle Network, a familiar cause to her given her experience with Dance Marathon. She was one of the first freshmen to serve on the USC Dance Marathon Executive Board, and in three years not only raised money, but also grew close to some of the children whose lives were saved at Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital, and their families.
This past spring, Dance Marathon’s Main Event fell on the same weekend as a crucial workshop for Miss South Carolina, so Sydney found a way to attend both, dashing back and forth, and standing the entire time at the workshop in support of her teammates. “I think this year was kind of a culmination for me and I was crying the whole time,” she said.
A win in the Miss South Carolina pageant would mean a year off from school to compete in Miss America and promote her platform while representing her home state, and having finished college a year early, Sydney is prepared for that. If she is not the winner, the alternative also looks very good: moving to Atlanta to study media law at Emory. Sydney was a journalism major at USC, and a media law class taught by Dr. Erik Collins sparked an idea for a future career.
“I told my mom ‘I’m going to jump on this field so all the Supreme Court cases that come up, I can be in on that,” she said. “There are going to be some big decisions related to the First Amendment now.”
Emory was her first choice, but even with her 4.0 GPA, she was not sure of making it into the very competitive school. “I was expecting a no because they’re the 19th law school in the nation,” she said, but when the email arrived, the answer was yes. “I called my mom at like 7 in the morning…I was crying and she was like ‘Are you okay? Is the dog okay?'”
Law school is her future, but Sydney’s focus for the present is the pageant, making appearances to spread the word of her platform, raising money to support Children’s Miracle Network, and preparing for the physical parts of the pageant. “I’m at the gym at least an hour a day. I also dance, which helps.” Sydney will tap dance for the pageant’s talent competition, and said “I have a little extra trick up my sleeve for this year.”