Connecticut native Sheryl Piland was the 1978 winner of the prestigious Hal Jackson Talented Teens International Pageant. She has an amazing story about her journey to winning the pageant and her career since, along with fond memories of the late Michael Jackson, Don Cornelius, and recently deceased broadcasting pioneer and pageant founder Hal Jackson.
Soultrain.com: Did you ever dream that one day you would one day win a pageant? What were your aspirations as a child?
Sheryl Piland: At one point, I dreamed of being a doctor. I also had a love for doing hair. I was always doing the hair for my Barbie dolls and for friends. So basically as a child and a teenager, my goal was to do something in the beauty industry.
Soultrain.com: How did your journey begin with Hal Jackson’s Talented Teens Pageant?
Sheryl: One day my mom was looking in the newspaper and she saw an advertisement by a sorority in Waterbury, Connecticut. Hal Jackson was seeking contestants for the local pageant. Contests are held locally before they go to the international level. I was 13 at the time. I went and tried out for it.
Soultrain.com: Hal Jackson’s pageants were not like the typical pagents, right?
Sheryl: Correct. It’s not like other pageants at all. You’re not judged based on beauty or your physical appearance, but rather your talent, grace and professionalism.
Soultrain.com: Did you receive any help or guidance in preparing for the local pageant?
Sheryl: Yes. A woman named Barbara DeBaptiste was very instrumental in helping me. She was always helping the youth and particularly young girls. She had a charm school and would give classes on etiquette and manners. She would also give debutante balls.
Soultrain.com: So obviously the preparation from Ms. DeBaptiste paid off since you won the local pageant.
Sheryl: Yes. I was the first runner up. I did an acting piece.
Soultrain.com: Did you encounter any jealousy while being a part of the local pageant?
Sheryl: Unfortunately, yes. This was the first time I encountered some mean girls. Me and another contestant were always doing theater around town. She actually won the local pageant and was entered in the international contest in California, but she was a third runner up. The bullying began when tickets were being sold for the local pageant. I was selling tickets and someone I sold a ticket to spread a rumor that I was going to beat the contestant who eventually won the local pageant, but I never said that. It was a lie. So she and these other girls came to my school and threatened me and harassed me saying they were going to beat me up, but I didn’t fight her.
Soultrain.com: That’s terrible. But obviously you didn’t let that stop you from entering the following year’s pageant.
Sheryl: Not at all. I entered the local contest again doing a gymnastics and dance routine and won and I also won for the state of Connecticut and was entered into the international contest.
Soultrain.com: Who was your chaperone?
Sheryl: My chaperone was Princetta Green. She oversaw everything.
Soultrain.com: What talent did you execute during the international pageant?
Sheryl: I did a gymnastic dance routine to a song from The Wiz.
Soultrain.com: That year’s international pageant had the honor of having Michael Jackson as guest host.
Sheryl: I was so excited! I used to cut out pictures of Michael from Right On! magazine. I used to dream I was going to meet him and I did and it happened in a big way.
Sheryl: What are your memories about him during the pageant?
Sheryl: Michael, Randy and Janet Jackson were a part of the rehearsals at the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles, where the pageant was held. They were so much fun. Michael was really cool and quiet. I remember he and Randy had their hair in braids underneath their safari hats (laughs). During the rehearsals Michael told all the girls to practice as if we were actually giving the real performance and to give it our all. He was the ultimate professional.
Soultrain.com: Meeting Hal Jackson must have also been a great honor for you.
Sheryl: Hal Jackson is a legend. I didn’t realize how many people he helped and how many lives he touched. He was such a gentleman. His wife Alice was a class act, too. She taught me a lot. She was a classy lady. I emulated her.
Soultrain.com: What else do you remember about the pageant?
Sheryl: Ja’net DuBois from Good Times was a judge, and so were Fred “Rerun” Berry and Haywood Nelson from What’s Happening. Jermaine Jackson was also there and before the pageant started, he came backstage and kissed me and told me he was pulling for me. It was also so much fun meeting all of the girls. Hal Jackson gave us a chance to meet people from all over the world.
Soultrain.com: So, what do you remember about that moment your name was called as the winner?
Sheryl: I could not believe it! I was so nervous! Michael sang a song called “Jump For Joy” as he grabbed my hand and walked me across the stage. He was happier than me!
Soultrain.com: Beautiful! What happened after the pageant?
Sheryl: A reception was held afterwards. I met the Jackson family. They sat at my table.
Soultrain.com: Did you cross paths with the Jacksons again?
Sheryl: Yes, when the Jacksons did the Victory Tour. When they came to New York City, I got to go up to Michael’s suite in Helmsley Palace and I saw him and Emmanuel Lewis having water pistol fights! (Laughs). He was a big kid. Working with and spending time with Michael Jackson was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.
Soultrain.com: Among the many prizes you won as being winner of the pageant was an opportunity to appear on Soul Train, right?
Sheryl: Yes. I taped Soul Train the day after the pageant.
Soultrain.com: What are your memories of appearing on Soul Train?
Sheryl: I remember when I walked into the studio–it was so small! I did an interview with Don Cornelius and I was so overwhelmed. I also did the Scramble Board–the solution was James Brown. I even did the Soul Train line and met the Emotions and Randy Jackson, who taped the show that day.
Soultrain.com: If you could sum up in one sentence your impression of the late Don Cornelius, what would that be?
Sheryl: Don Cornelius was such a kind, gracious man.
Soultrain.com: I was a little kid but I remember when you and the other Talented Teen contestants rode in the African American Day Parade in Harlem down Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard following the pageant. What was that like?
Sheryl: It was so exciting and quite an honor.
Soultrain.com: What doors opened for you after winning the pageant?
Sheryl: Brianna Benjamin became my manager and I began doing commercials like McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Schlitz Malt Liquor. The residuals were great! I also attended community college and did some acting.
Soultrain.com: What were some of your acting jobs?
Sheryl: There were so many. I did In The Heat of The Night with Carol O’Connor, 21 Jump Street, and a TV movie called Marked For Murder with Stefanie Powers. I also played the fan club president of character Jesse Hubbard on an episode of All My Children. Jesse was a V.J. at the time and I played a girl named Susie, the president of Jesse’s fan club.
Soultrain.com: What are you doing currently?
Sheryl: In 1992 I began a hair business. As I said earlier I was always doing my friends’ hair so I opened up my own business in North Hollywood and I have my own line of hair care products, shampoo and conditioners. I also have had a bed and breakfast business since November 2011 called the Spacienda on Hacienda. I would eventually love for my businesses to expand.
Soultrain.com: How can people find out more about your business?
Sheryl: They can visit my website www.extendtechair.com.
Soultrain.com: Being that the Talented Teen pageants were designed to teach teenage girls poise, class and etiquette, many young girls today seem to have lost their way. What is your opinion about this?
Sheryl: I do think a lot of the girls are lost and they unfortunately get unwarranted attention. They are dressing scantily and it gives them the wrong kind of attention. Accountability is lacking. Girls need role models, which a lot of them don’t have. I try to be a role model and guide young girls.
Soultrain.com: Hal Jackson was such an important person in your life and was a huge help in your career. Aside from your memories of working with him in the pageant, what other memories of him do you have?
Sheryl: Hal was like my dad. I would stay with him and his wife at their penthouse when I would come to New York. Hal’s motto was, “It’s nice to be important but its more important to be nice.” I live by that. You definitely plant seeds in life.
Soultrain.com: You’ve obviously learned some valuable lessons and gained a lot of wisdom in the journey of life. Would you like to share your words of wisdom with the readers?
Sheryl: God takes the bad things and turns them into good things. Your test becomes your testimony. Also, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade because you never know what blessings are around the corner. Finally, take your scars and turn them into stars.
NOTE: This interview was conducted a month before Hal Jackson’s passing. Sheryl told me she had spoken to Hal and his wife Debbie the day before the interview and had spoken with Hal about a week before he passed. Below is her statement made after Hal Jackson’s death.
“Hal Jackson was truly one of God’s best. I am lost for words to express the heaviness in my heart knowing that this beautiful soul has departed this earth. I thank God for allowing me to be so blessed by the presence of a soul so generous and unselfish in everything he did. Hal’s legacy will live on in each of us who had the pleasure to know him. May we continue to carry the torch that Hal unselfishly carried as he paved the path for others to follow. I can imagine God saying job well done Hal, now take your much deserved rest.”
For more information about Sheryl Piland’s businesses, visit her website www.extendechair.com.
In addition to being a journalist, Stephen McMillian is developng projects within the entertainment industry.