ZeAnn Blair, a 13-year-old Haven middle schooler, returned to Evanston from Atlanta in early August crowned Teen Miss U.S. United 2022.

ZeAnn Blair, a 13-year-old Haven middle schooler, holds the tiara and sash she won as Teen Miss U.S. United 2022. Credit: Carrie Abernathy

She snagged a national pageant title, but Teen Miss is only one of many accomplishments the 13-year-old has racked up in a short period. ZeAnn is a model, athlete and actress who has walked the runway in New York Fashion Week, landed acting gigs in Work in Progress, Chicago P.D. and South Side, and – to top it off – she’s on an all-star cheerleading team that travels and competes. 

Galvanized by the tragic death of her older brother and fortified with a mother who helps find and book gigs, ZeAnn Blair is a young star ascending.

Pageant success

There are a number of pageant organizations, many for-profit, that are not affiliated with the well-known Miss USA or Miss America competitions.

In the Miss U.S. United Pageant circuit that ZeAnn participated in, entrants 7 and older – the age-based categories top out at a division for women 46 years old and older – showcase their “merits and personality” to a set of judges, according to the pageant website.

ZeAnn Blair poses as Teen Miss Illinois. Credit: Jerry Alt

Contestants are chosen based on their community involvement and personal and professional achievements, according to the website. They are also judged on things like oral communication skills, confidence, poise, charisma, projection of personality and sincerity of answers.

ZeAnn captured the national Teen Miss U.S. United 2022 crown at a pageant on July 23, but before that she competed at the Midwest level and won the Illinois state title.

Since she’s returned home with her pageant title, ZeAnn has been booking appearances as “queen” – community service events where she helps bring visibility to a cause. For example, she participated in a PTA back-to-school drive with her middle school, Haven. 

 “We’re only supposed to do 12 [events], but I’ve already done my 12 in a month,” ZeAnn said. 

Modeling and acting gigs

The 5-foot-7 dark-skinned, hazel-eyed, soft-spoken teen told the RoundTable that ever since she was a little girl she would practice posing and doing her model walk. (“I have a really good walk,” she said.)

ZeAnn does many photo shoots in the Chicago area and attributes all of her gigs to her mother. 

“She’s literally mom momager,” she said. “She, like, finds everything I do and all the bookings. And she believed in me.”

ZeAnn’s mother, LaShawn Freeman, landed her debut at New York Fashion Week through a guy she was connected to on Facebook, who asked models to submit for RxBeauty to model makeup for Fashion Week. At 12 years old, ZeAnn was the youngest model selected, and was invited to New York based on her pictures alone. 

 “But she’s 12 years old, 5’7″, taller than most of the models that were there. And when they saw her height and her look … one of the designers asked her to walk,” Freeman said. 

ZeAnn was also invited to walk in Paris Fashion Week in 2023.

Since age 5, she has also wanted to be an actress, and growing up she practiced reading scripts, acting out scenes and writing TV shows with her cousins. In 2021, she started taking acting classes. 

ZeAnn Blair is dressed for a birthday party flashback scene in the Showtime television program “Work in Progress.” Credit: LaShawn Freeman

In the past few years, the young teen has left a mark on three Chicago-based shows: Work in Progress (2020), Chicago P.D. (2021 & 2022) and South Side (2022).

ZeAnn said she usually plays characters age 12-18 because her height makes her look older. She’s also landed younger parts because of her age, playing characters age 10 through 12. “Even though I don’t look like it, they still booked me.”

One role that stood out to ZeAnn was on set for Work in Progress, also known as WIP, a Showtime comedy program about the life of a queer lesbian. ZeAnn played a kid attending a birthday party in a flashback for the main character. “I got to dress like the ’80s,” ZeAnn said. 

Balancing school, athletics and the stage

Acting and modeling are only two components of ZeAnn’s life; she also spends up to 10 hours a week training for her traveling All-Star Cheer Team at a private gym in the evenings. Additionally, she plays on the volleyball team at Haven.

ZeAnn says some weeks she’s “not busy at all,” but other weeks she’s left with a packed schedule because she loves sports and is very active.

How does she balance it? For acting, ZeAnn can be booked on any day of the week.

If she’s acting on a Sunday, for example, she generally arrives on set early, finishes by 3 and can attend cheer in the evenings. Sometimes she will have to miss cheer Sundays if acting is a full day of filming, which “is totally fine” because she can do “make-up” practices for either tumbling or cheer. 

If ZeAnn has acting scheduled on a weekday, she misses school for it, and her teacher assigns her a week’s worth of assignments to complete while she’s gone. The State of Illinois requires that all child actors begin their filming “workday” with three hours of schooling, and she completes her assignments from Haven during those time frames. 

During the summer, child actors still have to do school while working on set – ZeAnn describes this as the only part of acting she doesn’t like. Her mother buys workbooks each year that correlate to whatever grade ZeAnn is in. 

Back at school, ZeAnn says that about half her school knows her as an actress and model, and half doesn’t. Some of her schoolmates think she’s rich, something she and her mom both laughed at. One classmate, unprompted, told her to buy an expensive bracelet. 

“Like, ‘Why won’t you buy it, you’re rich?’ I’m like, ‘Oh what made you think that?’  ‘Because you’re a model and an actor!'” 

Sometimes, she said, classmates who don’t know her background will tell her that she should model because she has the looks for it. Once she informs them that she does, the newly informed kid will spread the word. “It gets around everywhere,” ZeAnn said. Or when she’s missed a day of school, her teachers will announce to the class that she’ll be on television soon, which brings more attention.

Generally, though, ZeAnn has a small group of close friends that she’s maintained since elementary. 

Older brother’s influence

ZeAnn’s older brother, Sean “Ravi” Sullivan-Freeman, was killed on the North Side near Loyola University in August 2021, and the case is still open.

In the pageant she recently won, her platform was gun violence awareness. In the community service work she does, ZeAnn speaks out about gun control and has partnered with a group called Chicago Survivors as well. 

ZeAnn Blair, in an appearance as Teen Miss Illinois, poses in front of a memorial for 2021 victims of homicide. She points to the name of her brother, Sean “Ravi” Sullivan-Freeman, who was slain in August of last year. Credit: LaShawn Freeman

ZeAnn and her late brother were 13 years apart, and she said he was a big influence on her life.

“Her brother was at ETHS in gymnastics,” her mother said. “So he would practice his stretching and stuff. She started doing the same thing; before we knew it she was jumping off the couches and stuff, trying to do flips.”

ZeAnn Blair poses with her mother, LaShawn Freeman, and her late brother, Sean “Ravi” Sullivan-Freeman, in one of his high school graduation photos. Credit: Jerry Alt

Freeman, who owns her own business, only accepts contract jobs so that she can be a traveling mom who is there for all of her daughter’s events.

Freeman said that when her son was alive, he told her he “didn’t get the experience of having a mom going on field trips or a mom going to his events.” So as ZeAnn grows up, Freeman wants to be there for her as much as possible. 

What’s next for ZeAnn as she enters eighth grade and then high school?

She told the RoundTable that she either wants to be a “famous actor or doctor.”

“I look forward to going to college,” she said.

Debbie-Marie Brown is a reporter and Racial Justice Fellow at the Evanston RoundTable. They cover the local reparations initiative, Black life in Evanston, and the 5th ward. Contact Debbie-Marie at dmb@evanstonroundtable.com...

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