Tanner & Leah: Servant Hearts Raised in Starkville

Article by Richelle Putnam

Besides being Miss Mississippi 2017 pageant contestants, Tanner Fant and Leah Gibson have a few things in common. Both are proud Starkville, Mississippians and both are community servants.

Tanner, the 2017 Miss Mississippi runner-up, grew up performing at local Miss Mississippi preliminaries, including the Miss Mississippi State University pageant, and was selected as Miss Mississippi Magnolia princess for three years. Exposed to the world that is “Miss Mississippi” before her transition to contestant, she said, “I was cast as a production dancer for the state pageant and immersed in the backstage life and welcomed by the countless volunteers and backstage crew.”

Leah, on the other hand, was an introvert and started out in pageants against her will. Her middle school teacher encouraged Leah to enter a pageant, “So I finally went out and got the dress,” she said. Her mom, however, seeing that the tool needed ironing, ended up burning it. “On top of being completely scared out of my mind, but really excited, I had to continuously shift my dress before I walked out on stage because there was a huge hole in the tool.” Leah won a beauty spot, but it was being on stage and seeing the captured audience that had her hooked. Years later, she was named Miss University and was inducted into the Ole Miss Hall of Fame.

Entering Miss Mississippi takes confidence, talent, physical fitness and determination. Plus, it means going up against the best from every region of the state.

Tanner knew that going into pageants would be competitive, “But I personally thrive under that pressure,” she said. Competitiveness motivates and makes her prepare. “I not only put my best foot forward during the week of Miss Mississippi, but I relaxed during the week knowing I was fully prepared.”

“Pageants are subjective to a person’s perspective and their opinion,” Leah said. “You can’t take it personally.” She added that hours spent studying for interviews and days spent at the gym improved many skills, from interview to presentation. She was also in shape and healthy enough to accomplish more things in athletics.

Hearing her name called as 2017 Miss Mississippi first runner-up, Tanner’s first thought was “I finally get to eat a Freshman 15 burger and salted caramel milkshake from Bulldog Burger after six months of hardcore training.”

Community Service is possibly the most important thing Tanner and Leah have in common. Tanner received the Quality of Life Award and Leah was runner-up.

“Winning the Quality of Life Award felt like winning Miss Mississippi,” said Tanner, who, at the age of 14, started the “Let’s All Dance” program for children with special needs. Six years later, the program transformed into four sectors: a program for children with special needs, a program for individuals in assisted living or nursing homes, free after school programs for children who cannot afford to take dance classes, and master dance classes that raise money for Children’s Miracle Network. “My goal for “Let’s All Dance” is to create an inclusive, more unified Mississippi by giving every person the opportunity to participate in the arts,” Tanner explained. She credits the program’s success and the Quality of Life Award to the encouragement and guidance of the Starkville community.

Leah’s platform, highway safety, was her passion and the pledge she made going into high school, because car accidents remain the number one killer of teens. “I think people understood my position and I was making a difference in the community,” Leah said. People still come up to Leah to say they wear their seatbelt now and that no one will text and drive. “Sometimes, you don’t know if you are resonating with the audience, but when you see the impact you’ve made, that’s the best pay off. Driving safety is something everyone finds a connection to.”

For the future, Tanner dreams of moving to New York and dancing with a professional contemporary company or on Broadway.

“But I can only dance professionally so long before my body literally gives out on me,” Tanner said, and that’s where her additional studies come into play. While choosing a major in dance, specializing in performance and choreography, with a minor in psychology and public relations, Tanner plans to combine her areas of study to build a productive, quality future for those in need by establishing “Let’s All Dance” as a national nonprofit organization and outreach program.

Even in high school, Leah wanted to work in journalism and at 15, she started a website called “The Leah Show,” where she was the voice of people who didn’t have a voice in the community. “Hopefully we can revive the Leah show,” Leah said, “Because we have more in common than we have differences.”

For girls entering the pageant world, “There is not a thing or title in this world that is worth sacrificing your self-worth over,” Tanner said.

“Just because you’re not the loudest person in the room doesn’t mean that your opinion is not important,” Leah said. “Everyone has a part to play.”