Ex-Panthers cheerleader Eiesha Horsley is more than just a pretty face

It’s easy to tell that Eiesha Horsley is a beauty queen.

Not just because she’s strikingly attractive, but because on an otherwise ordinary day she is un-self-consciously parading through an office of cubicle workers in Charlotte while wearing the pageant sash she earned last year upon being crowned “Mrs. Georgia America.”

A few weeks later, the sash shows up again at a youth cheerleading practice Horsley is coaching at Bette Rae Thomas Recreation Center on Tuckaseegee Road, where she drapes it over one of the girls to create a photo opportunity.

Since moving to Charlotte from Pittsburgh a decade ago, Horsley, now 32, has made a career out of looking good, standing up straight, smiling pretty and – most importantly – being a role model for both girls and women. They are responsibilities she takes dead seriously.

“I don’t go to the grocery store anymore in just sweats like I used to. Without sunglasses, at least,” she says. “I’m constantly speaking (to groups in public), I’m constantly in front of a large audience. And people judge you first according to how you look. So I try to uphold a certain image.”

Barely eight months after graduating from college, she founded a program for young cheerleaders, dancers, gymnasts and pageant contestants. She made the Carolina Panthers TopCats cheerleading squad four times, and in 2012 was one of four co-captains. Then she married an Army captain last May, moved the following day to Columbus, Ga., competed the following month in the Mrs. Georgia America Pageant, and won.

But an even more pivotal moment in Horsley’s life happened 13 years ago at a Pennsylvania state track meet, when she was a senior at a suburban high school that was mostly white.

(Her mother, Karen Jones, says Eiesha was in third grade when she moved her children from Edgewood, Pa. – adjacent to Pittsburgh – to the borough of Plum, 10 miles farther out. “There was too much foolishness” closer to the inner city, Jones says.)

As she was getting ready to run the 200-meter dash, Horsley says, several other African-American girls in the event were staring her down, taunting her by saying things to each other like “She thinks she’s white.”

“I was scared to death,” Horsley says. “I hate to say it, but the way they talked and carried themselves. ... They were very intimidating.

“(But later) I remember thinking, ‘Are they intimidating because of the sport, or because they’re African-American?’ And ultimately, I knew: ‘This is not OK. You should not be scared of your own kind. ... I think that was my deal breaker.”

Within months, Horsley applied to six historically black colleges, eventually winding up at Norfolk State University in the fall of 2000.

‘Can you believe it?’

Of the 14 contestants competing for the title of Mrs. Georgia on June 29, Horsley had been married for the least amount of time. Just 57 days earlier, she had wed Jarrell Omar Horsley, another Norfolk State alumnus.

Eiesha Horsley had competed in pageants in college and had won them. But that was 12 years earlier – back when she was a teenager, back when her competition in some cases wasn’t even old enough to drink.

Mrs. Georgia presented an entirely different type of challenge, Horsley says.

“These ‘Mrs.’ women have phenomenal careers. They are mothers, they are wives, they are politicians, doctors, lawyers. It’s no longer just the beauty, it’s sometimes not even just the degrees; it is really the whole package.

“I was also nervous because I didn’t have children, so I had no children to talk about. And even with my fitness ... I did not win the fitness category. A mother with three kids did.”

So winning was more than a bit of a shock to her.

After her coronation, as she stood next to her new husband on stage at the Roswell Cultural Arts Center in Roswell, Ga., she leaned in and whispered to him, “Can you believe it?” Later that night, before falling asleep, she said to him, “Can you believe it?” When they woke up in the morning, the first thing she said was “Can you believe it?”

The shock didn’t begin to wear off, Jarrell Horsley says, until she started filling out forms required for entry into the Mrs. America pageant.

“Because she’s so prepared for everything that she’s done in her life, if anything unexpected happens, she will not believe it at first. It’s like a dream, like a fairy tale,” he says. “When I proposed to her, she walked around for a couple days saying, ‘Can you believe it?’ ”

‘M.A.D.E.’ in Charlotte

Though Horsley mainly lives in Columbus, Ga., now – her husband is stationed at Fort Benning – a big piece of her heart remains in Charlotte.

Fresh out of college, she moved here on a whim in 2004, got one part-time job at Express in SouthPark mall and another as a recreational coach at a cheerleading company. Before long, she was hired by the Simmons YMCA in East Charlotte to oversee its summer camp programs.

But things really picked up for Horsley in 2005. In January, she started a cheerleading instruction business called M.A.D.E. Today. In April, she made the Panthers cheerleading squad.

She was laid off from the YMCA, but M.A.D.E. Today was gaining traction – so much so that after her maiden stint in the NFL, she put all of her focus into growing the enrollment. (She did return to the Panthers in 2010, ’11 and ’12.)

Today, Horsley oversees seven part-time employees and together they coach about 250 girls in recreational cheerleading, dance and tumble classes in Charlotte. She returns here regularly to lead classes at Bette Rae Thomas Rec Center.

She also remains a proud and active Norfolk State alumnus. In recent years, she has gone back to visit with the university’s cheerleading squad, giving the members pep talks and pointers. She also returned to campus in October to serve as the honorary marshal for the homecoming parade.

“The things she’s done for our students here, for her community, everyone (on the homecoming committee) pulled together and said, ‘This is somebody we’d like to showcase,’ ” says Tarrye Venable, director of student activities – who was pageant director when Horsley won Miss Norfolk State.

“The crowns are great, but the most beneficial thing is when you’ve got someone like Eiesha who’s helping others and helping them to develop.”

Down the road, Horsley’s goals include expanding M.A.D.E. Today to Columbus and Atlanta; becoming a cheerleader for either the Atlanta Hawks or the Atlanta Falcons; and taking another shot at Mrs. America (she did not place last year) after her husband gets transferred to another base, since she can compete again as a resident of a different state.

And lest you think there aren’t brains behind this beauty: Since 2009, Horsley – who already has a master’s degree – has been working steadily to earn a Ph.D. Horsley is on track, she says, to finish in December 2015.

As she tells her students all the time: “You can be talented, you can be beautiful. But if you’re not smart, no one cares.”