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Nicole has a lot to deal with—things most of the other beauty queens wouldn't understand since the pageant world is so white. At first she doesn't want everyone to bring up the race thing around her just because of her skin color, but she's not exactly thrilled by the stereotypes and prejudices floating around her.
In the Teen Dreams' practice interview in Chapter Six, Nicole claims that the pageant isn't racist. Um, what? Basically, we learn right away that what she says and what she thinks are two different things.
Here's what she thinks about the only Black winner, Sherry Sparks: "In the forty-year history of the Miss Teen Dream Pageant, she was the only African-American winner—until it was revealed that Sherry had once shoplifted eye shadow from an Easy Rx store and she was drummed out in shame." (6.92) Even though several pageant girls have misbehaved since, Nicole thinks it's completely unfair how everyone still brings up Sherry.
As one of the few Black people in a white neighborhood, Nicole is used to putting white people at ease. She tries this when she meets the other beauty queens, even though they assumed (because of her color) that she was a native of the island rather than a fellow plane crash survivor. Wow. Just wow.
It takes befriending Shanti to help Nicole feel like she doesn't have to try so hard to be accepted by white people. "Between people. That's what she and Shanti were," (16.79) she realizes. Because both Shanti and Nicole don't quite fit in with their culture or pageant culture, they decide to stick together. Shanti understands Nicole's experience, and (eventually) encourages Nicole to be herself. It's not going to solve racism in the pageant kingdom, but at least it's a start.
Shanti also gets Nicole to admit something about why she entered the pageant:
"But mostly, it's to make my mom happy. She really wants me to be a star. I think she's the one who wants to be a star." (17.27)
Nicole has been living in her mother's shadow her whole life, which isn't exactly great for her self-esteem. A former Lakers girl, Nicole's mother constantly criticizes Nicole's darker skin, pushing lightening cream and hair-straightening products on her. Talk about harmful stereotypes. She's obsessed with her daughter becoming a star, while all Nicole wants to be is a doctor. You don't need a hair straightener to save lives, after all.
But there's no mama on the island, and after a few weeks by herself, Nicole isn't so intent on impressing her mother any more. Because after facing certain death in quicksand, an evil Corporation, and all sorts of murderers, standing up to your mother somehow isn't quite as big a deal.