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Subject: Queen of self-esteem

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Date Posted: 03/30/05 6:59:05am

Queen of self-esteem
Beauty-contest winner heads the state's chapter of a group that helps girls who are sick


Beauty pageants might seem out of the ordinary for an information-technology consultant who spends her days designing databases.

After all, Samira Fazel grew up in a Muslim home where wearing a bathing suit in public past a certain age just wasn't done.

Yet the newcomer to Richmond has had success in a world she never thought she'd enter. This month, she won the title of Miss Virginia All American. And it's her involvement in beauty pageants that has led her to devote her time and energy to helping sick children forget that they're sick.

"It deals with self-esteem," said Fazel, the head of the Virginia chapter of Queen for a Day, an organization that aims to boost the spirit and self-esteem of girls struggling with severe diseases.

"As a healthy child, I struggled with self-esteem issues. [The program also] recognizes kids for being so brave."

Fazel, 27, first heard about Queen for a Day while competing in pageants in North Carolina, where she was in graduate school. Chapters of the Florida-based organization host parties where the girls and their siblings are made a "queen for a day" with a manicure, a dash of makeup and a tiara donated by pageants' winners.

By addressing head-on issues of physical beauty, volunteers hope to help children better deal with damaged self-esteem, while allowing them to forget about their illness for a few hours.

Because a sick child can absorb so much of parents' time and attention, parties are open to siblings who can get some much-needed attention. Some chapters coordinate "Hero for a Day" activities that give boys a chance to spend time with police officers and firefighters.

In between commuting to Northern Virginia three to four days a week and getting settled in her new home -- she has lived in Richmond for a month -- Fazel is working with a number of area organizations to begin hosting Queen for a Day parties for area children, including Ronald McDonald House Charities of Richmond.

"I think it's a great program. We're excited to be part of it," said Carolyn Palugod, volunteer director for the International Hospital for Children. The Richmond-based organization transports children and their families from the Caribbean and Central and South America to Richmond, where volunteer surgeons perform procedures free of charge.

Though Queen for a Day has its roots in the beauty-pageant world -- its founder competed as Miss Florida in the 2004 Miss America pageant and has been involved in competitions since she was a child -- Fazel did not spend her childhood dreaming of becoming a beauty queen.

Academics were foremost in her home, where her father was a university professor. When watching televised pageants as a child in Northern Virginia, she noticed the lack of ethnic diversity among the contestants, who were vying for college scholarships and other prizes.

"I was always very focused on academics," she said. "I thought, 'If I want a scholarship, I'm going to study, not put on makeup.'"

But her attention was piqued in 2003 while studying at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She competed in a pageant out of academic curiosity, with plans to eventually write a book about the experience.

She entered the Miss North Carolina USA contest because, at age 25, she was too old for some competitions. Rather than practicing walking in heels, Fazel prepared for the contest by researching pageants online.

At 5-foot-1, she did invest in a pair of 5-inch heels and took comfort in the pageant's lack of a talent component.

"I can't pull my laptop out on stage," she said with a laugh.

Though the world of beauty pageants was foreign to Fazel, community service and dealing with a sickness had become a part of her life.

Her parents grew up in Tanzania, a poor East African country, and imparted on their children the importance of remaining humble and helping others.

When her father was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2002, Fazel wound up meeting a number of children with cancer during hospital visits. Some of them displayed more confidence and courage than adults who were battling the disease, she said.

She recalled a time she was sitting alone at a cancer fundraiser having a "pity party," depressed because of her father's illness, and a little boy with cancer came and comforted her.

"I was like, 'Who am I to be . . . absorbed in myself,'" she said. "I felt like I wanted to give back to these kids."

Though she spends most of the workweek on the road as a consultant with Accenture, Fazel's cell phone keeps her connected with volunteers and partnering agencies.

Organizers hope to hold the first party in the Richmond area in June and have received an offer of more than 60 tiaras from the head of a Virginia beauty pageant.

Fazel, who plans to found her own nonprofit organization, said her experience in the corporate world and establishing a local Queen for a Day chapter is providing valuable training.

"My phone is my best friend," Fazel said, acknowledging that life has been hectic between moving to Richmond, traveling for work and trying to coordinate Queen for a Day activities.

"[I] never get bored."

Contact Dena Sloan at (804) 649-6860 or dsloan@timesdispatch.com

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