Miss Alaska 2017 talks Tlingit heritage and digital entrepreneurship

For 27-year-old Alyssa London, Miss USA competition is a chance to bring Native culture to national audience

She’s a Tlingit Eagle of the Killerwhale clan and a digital advertising expert, a Stanford grad, former Microsoft marketing wiz and entrepreneur.

This year’s Miss Alaska USA, 27-year-old Alyssa London is as comfortable in the boardroom as she is in a floatplane, flying between Southeast’s villages to promote the region’s indigenous artists.

Crowned Feb. 4 and named a Sealaska Heritage Institute cultural ambassador on Friday, the Empire spoke with London Saturday about pageantry, leadership and how she reconciles her Native heritage with a digital world.

The date and venue for the 66th Miss USA pageant are yet to be announced.

Juneau Empire: What went through your head when you found out you had won Miss Alaska 2017?

London: I was shocked. It was a dream come true and I was very, very grateful. I just wanted to run out in the audience and give my friends and family that came to support me a hug.

JE: You were just named a cultural ambassador for the Sealaska Heritage Institute. What does that title mean to you?

London: My Tlingit heritage means a ton to me because it is the basis for my identity and for a lot of what I feel is my purpose in life. When you do work that benefits your community and serves others that you care about, then I believe you live a very fulfilled and happy life. I was taught that by my father. He decided to practice tribal law as an Assistant U.S. Attorney and to also serve on the board of Sealaska. So when I was growing up, that left an impact on me because he felt — and I could always tell — that he was doing good work because it benefitted our people, so I wanted to do the same.

JE: What do you hope to accomplish as an ambassador?

London: I hope to shine light on the vitality of our culture, not only Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian culture, which is what I am the ambassador for, but also American Indian culture and Alaska Native culture at large. There aren’t that many women who are indigenous who take on these titles, being representatives and ambassadors for the state. With a viewership of five million people at Miss USA, I can at least make the statement that we are here, that we not only have an amazing, beautiful heritage but we are modern people who carry our heritage into the world today.

JE: What does it mean to be a role model, particularly for young Native women?

London: It’s an honor and responsibility. I think that I have lived my life in a way that I can take something like this on. I really was committed to my studies and my health and wellness. Because I do live a positive lifestyle, I love to learn and explore the world and experience cultures around the world, I think that if more people want to emulate that and live positive, healthy lifestyles and pursue education, it will open doors for themselves. Leaving even a small impact in that way would make all of these pursuits more than worth it. I am incredibly grateful to be in a position that my choices and how I’ve behaved can over time possibly inspire others.

JE: Did you grow up with a strong connection to your Tlingit heritage or was it something you embraced as you grew older?

London: My father and grandfather always instilled a strong connection to my Tlingit culture but it was through experiences like going to Latseen Culture Camp and participating in other programs with Sealaska, developing friendships and extended family and also just learning more about the richness of my family history and my tribe’s history, it has increased and grown over time.

JE: You started a project called Culture Story. Could you tell us about that?

London: When I graduated college, I went and worked for Microsoft and learned about the power of content marketing. From my studies in college, I learned that I am passionate about rural economic development. Then serving on the Sealaska board as an elected youth board advisor, where the conversation is often about how we can provide economic opportunity to our rural shareholders, in Southeast and Alaska at large, well Culture Story is my solution to that problem.

How do we provide jobs and economic opportunity to our people who have traditional and cultural skills, many of which pertain to our traditional arts? I come to the table with a background in sales, marketing and media, so it’s a way for me to provide a platform where I can tell the stories of makers and culture bearers, help them sell their pieces on their behalf much like a gallery would or any commerce site. So we’re helping provide economic opportunity. Eventually, I would like to make it Alaska-wide and throughout Indian country at large.

JE: How did you get into pageantry?

London: I did my first pageant when I was 17 or 18. It was an opportunity to use my public speaking abilities. I got into pageantry because I really respected the women because they were not only beautiful, but they were confident, they knew how to speak well. I saw it as a personal development opportunity to see if I could improve my public speaking abilities on stage, to prove that I could walk with poise and grace or even learn how to best present myself with my style and the way that I groom myself even because I really believe that all helps with business. Learning through pageantry how to interview has helped me interview for jobs as well. Anything that you take on will help you learn skills for other things in your life. That’s what pageantry for me is, it’s about growth.

JE: What kind of preparation goes into these competitions?

London: I have to practice a lot for interviews, learn how to answer questions on the fly much like you’re asking me questions on the fly right now. You have to have a really succinct, 30-second answer and wrap it up with why I would make a great Miss Alaska or Miss USA.

I also do a lot of fitness training. That’s a process of whole-body wellness, so learning how to take care of myself in terms of getting enough sleep, drinking enough water and doing mindfulness training, which involves gratitude and meditation. Then cardio and light weight training. That’s how you’re able to stand on stage and look fit and radiant, it’s not just a matter of — the idea that we don’t eat, that’s just so not true — I learn a lot about nutrition and what my body needs. I give it a lot of protein and fruits and vegetables so I like that part of it because I’ve learned a lot about how to take care of myself.

Then there’s the outfit component, especially for Miss USA. Since I am a cultural ambassador, I am really thinking about using the gown and the two weeks of outfits we need to wear and be camera-ready, thinking about how I can work with Native artists and use that as an ability to display Native art and tell a story with what I am wearing. There’s a lot that goes into it.

JE: How hard is the physical conditioning? How often are you in the gym?

London: For Miss Alaska, I was in the gym six days a week. I believe it will be similar for Miss USA, about an hour and a half, two hours a day working out. A lot of that is cardio so I listen to a lot of books and podcasts.

JE: What podcasts do you listen to?

London: My favorite podcast is “Girlboss.” It’s hosted by a female who successfully started her own businesses and interviews other female entrepreneurs. One of my platforms as Miss Alaska is to inspire women to look to entrepreneurship as a way to achieve independence and self-sufficiency, so I listen to a lot of podcasts on entrepreneurship.

JE: What did you study at Stanford?

London: I studied comparative studies in race and ethnicity. It’s a department that gave me an opportunity to have an interdisciplinary approach to my studies, meaning I could take classes in various departments around campus. That was very important for me as someone who loves to learn. I just felt that there were so many cool classes to take every quarter that I didn’t want to be kept in one department. So I took classes in political science, history, economics. My honors thesis was rural economic development in Southeast Alaska. That was because I interned at Sealaska for my first two summers in college and I was involved in those conversations with my corporation. That goes back to my earlier answer about Culture Story; I have been thinking about rural economic development for a long time.

JE: What advice would you give to young Tlingit or Native women who may look up to your example and hope to achieve their own goals and dreams?

London: That you get just as much out of going through the process of pursuing your goal as you do ultimately achieving it. The amount of personal growth I’ve achieved just by pursuing the goal of Miss Alaska is just as meaningful as now becoming Miss Alaska. That’s honestly icing on the cake.

So my advice is: pursue your goal no matter the outcome. Don’t be afraid of possibly failing. This was not my first pageant, I had competed in others and ultimately, after a process, was able to be successful, but success doesn’t happen overnight. You need to start going toward your goal and eventually you’ll reach it or you’ll reach something else that’s really great.

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