UMSL alumna Wauneen Rucker was named Mrs. Missouri America 2020 last November and will compete for the title of Mrs. America this weekend in Las Vegas. (Photo courtesy of Wauneen Rucker)

When the 2021 Mrs. America is named next week in Las Vegas, University of MissouriSt. Louis alumna Wauneen Rucker could be crowned the winner.

Rucker, representing the city of St. Louis, won the title of Mrs. Missouri America last November in Pittsburg, Kansas, to move on to compete in the Mrs. America pageant. The winner of the Mrs. America contest will go on to compete for the Mrs. World title.

“It’s just days away, and I go there to compete against 51 women, and from there it goes to Mrs. World,” Rucker said excitedly. “We go to different places to make appearances, we attend dinners in our honor, there are the rehearsals and photo ops. They asked us to have four or five evening gowns and four or five cocktail dresses. It takes a lot to get prepared.”

The Mrs. America pageant – this year held from March 19-27 – was established in 1976 to honor married women. Contestants from all 50 states plus the District of Columbia compete in three categories: interview, evening gown and swimsuit. Rucker, who earned her bachelor’s degree in criminology and criminal justice from UMSL in 1996, has been competing in beauty pageants since she was 14. 

Rucker, a St. Louis native, wife and mother of two sons, said she started competing as a child because her family wanted her to. But at the age of 57, she said her latest endeavor is in tribute to a close friend.

“My childhood friend said she wanted to see me compete so I made her a promise that I would compete one more time,” she said. “She always had health issues, and she didn’t make it. She died in April last year, and that very day I said, ‘That’s it, I’m filling out the [Mrs. America] application.’”

Rucker first took a detour from pageantry at the age of 18 when she surprised her family by joining the Marine Corps. After serving in the military, she became a St. Louis police officer and later a state corrections investigator. Rucker said that at the time she was one of only 16 investigators in the state, and she was the only African American woman.

“What I learned from UMSL was the catalyst for how I’ve navigated through the jobs in that arena,” said Rucker, recalling how she would work the night shift as a police officer, take her son to school and then attend daytime criminology classes at UMSL.

“When I was at UMSL, the department chair was Scott Decker, and he was world renowned for criminology and criminal justice, and I learned so much from that man. He showed us different aspects of the criminal justice world, and the curriculum he constructed for that department has taken me through being in the police department as well as being an investigator for the Department of Corrections.”

Following her law enforcement career, Rucker followed her first career love and reinvented herself as a culinary entrepreneur. She earned an associate degree in baking and pastry arts from St. Louis Community College–Forest Park in 2014. Prior to that, she also earned a master’s degree in management from Webster University. 

“I left [law enforcement] for personal reasons, and I wanted to be able to do something that I always loved to do which is bake,” she said.

Competing as Mrs. America gives Rucker an opportunity to promote and support another passion of hers.

“I am a champion for the St. Louis Area Diaper Bank, which is an organization that helps families have access to adequate diapers for their babies,” she said. “Only 23 states have organizations like this one, so I’m bringing national attention to lift the burden off of young mothers. Most of these women and young families are not making a whole lot of money, and diapers are very expensive. This is a very natural and simple thing that is wholeheartedly overlooked.”

Rucker said she values the close relationships she’s formed with the “sister queens” in the pageant community. In addition to competing, she has served as both a coach and a chaperone to contestants under the age of 18 in the Miss America pageant.

“I don’t have daughters by birth, I have boys,” she said. “But I have pageant babies, and we call ourselves moms for the weekend, and that relationship carries on. I always teach them to not let your chronological age dictate your psychological age. I don’t care what your age is, you give it your best shot.”

Doing your best also comes with the responsibility of representation, Rucker said. In its 45-year history, only two African American women and only two contestants from Missouri have won Mrs. America. 

“The weight of this whole thing rides on my shoulders,” Rucker said. “Before me there has only been one African American winner, legitimate winner (the other won by default). And as for Mrs. Missouri, there’s only been two of us that have gone through the fire and come out victorious.”

But Rucker said that no matter the outcome, competing in the Mrs. America pageant is just another page in her playbook.

“The decision of the winner has already been made, we just haven’t turned that page of the book of life yet,” she said. “My grandmother used to tell us that we all have a book of life that is written before we even know who we are. In that book, there is nothing that can change or alter because that book is written for you. The only thing that changes is how long it takes to turn the page. To learn the lesson we need to learn in life and then move forward.”

Ramona Curtis

Ramona Curtis