Tara Invidiato couldn’t see the audience. She couldn’t hear them, either.
But Invidiato, who is deaf and blind, could feel their presence Saturday during the second annual Miss Blind Diva Empowerment Pageant.
The crowd, seated at dozens of tables, clapped their hands and stomped their feet at the Club House, a community center in Newarks Central Ward.
“I could feel their vibrations,” she said. “That’s the beauty of being blind.”
They could feel her, too, as she used sign language to fully express the emotions in “DeafBlind Strong,” a poem she wrote to educate those of us with sight.
“We are not disabled,” said Invidiato, who was born deaf and lost her sight three years ago from aggressive glaucoma. “We are different-abled.”
The judges agreed.
Invidiato, 33, of Keyport won the Miss Blind Diva crown, an honor she said also belongs to the six other visually impaired ladies, who competed to let others know that vision loss does not hold them back.
“If I had the opportunity to take this crown and copy it, they would all deserve it,” Invidiato said. “They are true symbols of empowerment and independence.”
We can’t forget rock stars, too.
With Newark police officers and firefighters as their escorts, ladies and gentlemen allow me to introduce Jameisha Murrell, 23, of Plainfield; Joanna Mallard, 32, of Jersey City; Tamilah Alexander, 30, of Irvington, Laura Etori, 23, of Newark, Claress Knight, 22, of Maplewood and Tekesha Saffold, 35, of Palm Beach, Florida.
Since February, the ladies have been attending pageant workshops in modeling, makeup and how to present themselves when they strut down the runway.
Sporting fashion from Ashley Stewart, a clothing store in Newark and Designer Christopher Bonds of Drama House fashion, the ladies walked the runway in garments from casual to evening wear and “nine to fine.”
They presented videos on You Tube showing their daily independence in activities such as athletics, cooking, creating art, navigating a college campus and social outings like bowling.
The idea to enlighten others about their world came from Krystle Allen, president of Eyes Like Mine Inc., a nonprofit organization in Newark that challenges stereotypes and stigmas about the blind.
Allen, who is legally blind, coined the catchy Ms. Blind Diva label when she didn’t like students at Essex County College referring to her as the blind girl.
“If they’re going to call me blind girl, they’re going to call me Blind Diva.”
Based on that thought, Allen and Naquela Wright, vice president of the organization, who is also blind, started the pageant to empower visually impaired women.
They’re onto something, because Murrell, who lost her sight at 12 years old said she came to “show up and show out” at the pageant.
She draws strength from the blind community, including family members, whose vision loss is hereditary. Murrell’s sister, mother and aunt are blind. So was her late grandfather, whom she said was a big influence.
“He told me to not let anything keep you down.”
She doesn’t. In two weeks, Murrell will be in Indianapolis with her team, the New Jersey Honey Bees, to compete for the national championship in goalball, a team game for blind and visually impaired athletes.
But on Saturday, everyone saw why Murrell was a “Phenomenal Woman” the Maya Angelou poem she recited. The inspiration of those words was matched by a gospel song that Mallard sang, “Put a Praise on It” by Tasha Cobbs, which brought the audience to its feet.
“Remember, don’t let nothing stop you from being who you are,” said Mallard, who lost her sight 12 years ago from retinal detachment. “I may have lost my sight, but I have not lost my vision.”
After struggling with blindness as a child and teenager, Knight adopted Mallard’s mindset when she realized that “being blind is not the end of the world.”
Knight just graduated from Union County College, the setting of her video of independence. It shows how she gets to class, using her support cane to tap along walls and her senses to hear doors open or vending machine noise to know when to turn left or right. In the fall, Knight transfers to Kean University, where she’ll be a communications major. At the pageant, she sang a lovely song about Virginia and was more comfortable in this competition than last year.
Vocals from Etori transported the audience to Kenya with a traditional African song she sang about her homeland. She’s majoring in computer science and applied math at Rutgers University-Newark.
“Being blind is the best thing that could have happened to me,” said Etori, explaining that she is more outgoing.
“Can I hear your smile?” Etori asked.
The crowd cheered loudly.
Traveling and trying new things hasn’t been a problem for Saffold. Remember she came from Florida to be in the pageant, a bucket list item she can now check off.
“God has given me the opportunity to live life,” said Saffold, a “gym junky” who is also president of the National Federation of the Blind of Palm Beach,Fla.
Alexander, a cancer survivor, tickled the crowd, telling them she was ready to “rip the runway.” Energetic and artistic, Alexander is “always down for a challenge.”
All of the divas were game this past weekend. They danced, blew kisses to the audience, styled and profiled to music from DJ Blind Wonder, whose real name is Otis Kerr.
The pageant experience came together with direction from coordinator Detras Powell, a model coach who said she benefited from the ladies.
“They taught me how to teach them,” Powell said. “It taught me to be more sensitive outside of my world.”
Eyes Like Mine is only four years old, but the impact it delivers seems longer. Newark Mayor Ras Baraka correctly noted that the founders are not concerned about position or status.
“They are not interested in the way people look at them or see them,” Baraka said.
They make things happen. They make people feel what they’re doing.
Now make some noise. Clap your hands and stomp your feet as loud as you can.