At 61, Rochester resident elected Ms. Senior Universe in recent Florida event
By John Addyman
Jian Shakakeeny is a slight woman. Polite to a fault. Bright eyes and quick answers. Proud, easy smile.
The crown on her head and the “Ms. Senior Universe” sash on her beautiful dress shout that she is someone special with a story to tell and a mission to accomplish.
Her husband, George Shakakeeny, is a tenured bassoon professor at the Eastman School of Music. They met when he was teaching bassoon at Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio.
Did he woo her with his double-reed bassoon?
“No, it was the other way around,” she said without missing a beat. “I’m a go-getter.”
In truth, Jian Shakakeeny, 61, is not a go-getter; she is an irresistible force of nature.
Her first college degree from the China Academy of Science and Technology?
Her first real job?
Teaching English in China.
She came to the United States to study philosophy and women’s studies at Southern Illinois University.
In her pocket when she got off the plane?
“I grew up in a very financially difficult situation,” she said. “Making ends meet was always a struggle for my parents. I left China with my parents in debt because they purchased the airplane ticket for me to come to this country and go to school here.”
And now, among many other initiatives that pour out of her, she teaches women about a disciplined approach to saving money and investing, about cooking to save their lives.
She loves languages. She is fluent in Spanish. She learned French and Japanese at Oberlin.
The Shakakeeny son, Nicholas, got enrolled in the “Jian Academy” when he was a babe. He started piano lessons before he could spell “Beethoven.” His mom took piano, too, “to be able to coach him.”
Nicholas went to public school and came home to hours of piano practice, extra help with academics and baths of languages and music. She taught him to read and write in Chinese, a lot of math and financial management. He’s now a percussionist with the Fort Worth Symphony.
“I wasn’t a ‘Tiger Mom,’” she said.
George met her at one of his recitals. Or rather, she found him.
“I talked to him after the recital and I held onto the program to capture his name. Later on, I called him up by contacting the college information center, they gave me the number. You could do that in those days,” she said. “He was little scared that I called him up, but he did remember me. He thought I was this crazy person, this psycho. But after a while in our phone conversation, he thought I was fascinating, I was interesting.
“I didn’t realize there was a time difference [he lived in Ohio and I was in Illinois] and I was calling him fairly late. It was 11 p.m. in Ohio. He was getting ready to go out of town to Boston to do a concert there. But he talked to me and asked me for my phone number. From there he was just calling me every day. Within a month he invited me to Oberlin, then two more times, the fourth time — within three months, he asked me to move in with him. I did. I quit my school and my teaching assistantship.”
George is an Eastman alum and suggested Jian get her master’s degree in instructional technology at RIT. They had a long-distance, Ohio-New York love relationship for nine months. In 1993, after she got her degree, they were married in a special ceremony on the Wagner Concert Hall Stage at Oberlin.
She got a job as a consultant for a Big Six accounting firm and started work when she was pregnant in her third trimester with Nichola, waiting to come out and be a percussionist.
After Nicholas, she got back into consulting, but stopped that when travel became too much. She took Nicholas to China and spent time reviewing traditional Chinese medicine.
“I wanted to start a natural healing clinic,” she said. “I also learned Chinese reflexology and reiki therapy. When we got back, I started a little clinic in my home and Nicholas was ready for Jian’s Academy.”
Financial planning was very important to her…remember those $30 she clutched when she got to America for the first time.
“When we got married, my husband and I were on one income for quite a while, so I just decided that I really wanted to learn how to save and invest our limited income,” she said. “It was a very important subject for my son to learn. That’s why I incorporated that into his curriculum. Talking financial management and learning languages is my passion, I also incorporated French and Latin into his curriculum. Poor kid, you know?
“I’m not the typical Tiger Mom: I’m very tender. Nicholas thanked me when he was in high school because he said this period trained him to be responsible, to be disciplined and also knowing a lot — the knowledge really gave him the confidence to do well in school. He had high school friends who dropped out of college. He went to the Manhattan School of Music. He’s now a professional musician. He told me, ‘Never in my life would I quit school.’”
When Jian’s Academy closed down, she had more time to devote to things she’d always wanted to do. At age 53 she was studying oriental dance and international gastronomy. In 2016 she started making trips to Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia and the Dominican Republic.
She got infected with the Epstein-Barr virus on one of those trips and developed postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome and Hashimoto syndrome, an autoimmune disorder. In her search to get out from under the two serious medical conditions, she discovered “medical medium” Anthony Williams and adopted his cooking protocols.
“I healed myself within three years,” she said. “Basically, I was following a vegan diet with no fat and no grains. Also supplements and herbs. What we eat really matters — what we put in our bodies. I want to share that experience with people. I completely changed my cooking. Everybody loved my cooking in the past — I cooked all kinds of things and I was really into presentation. Everybody said, ‘Your food is so beautiful and tastes so delicious.’ I had to change my cooking completely.”
“Last year, I offered to help my friend in Costa Rica to cure her autoimmune disorder by staying with her for two weeks and cooking for them every day,” she continued. “I thought, why shouldn’t I do this for a lot of families in Latin America? So, I started doing that. My friend told me, ‘Your cooking is my religion now: I am a faithful disciple.’ Wow! That is so touching.”
Ms. Senior Universe
But she wasn’t busy enough.
“A few months before I turned 60, I wanted to enter a pageant,” she said.
She had been studying dance and performing in shows and for residents of nursing homes and saw a copy of 55 Plus magazine and an article about someone she knew, Debbi Robinson, “one of my dancing sisters.”
The first effort at a pageant wasn’t satisfying, so she did what she has always done — she took a step back and reloaded. She went to the Barbizon School to get experience in modeling. She aligned with a famous photographer.
“At the end of 2021, I went back into pageantry and modeling. I found Senior Pageants Group,” she said.
A “Ms. Senior. Universe” judging seemed right in her sweet spot.
The judging was based on an interview — she knew she could ace that. And on presentation in a nice dress — she was already a model and very slim. No problem there.
She would have to make a presentation on her philosophy of life, something she’s been preparing every day since she was a little girl. And she had to do a talent presentation — a dance. The contest organizers granted her extra time when they saw her video.
And earlier this year, she won. She is Ms. Senior Universe. She got a crown, a sash, a trophy — and a push to do more.
“I really like the group’s mission, to honor and celebrate the lives and accomplishments of women over 60 and to encourage women to accept who they are and to try and understand they can still offer a lot to the world,” she said. “For me, that’s indeed the case. I still set goals, short term. Mid-term and long-term goals. My short-term goal is to win an audition for the leading role in a dance production of ‘The Wizard of Oz.’”
She took the crown and sash to the United Nations as an at-large ambassador for all beautiful women of a certain age. And she has more plans.
“I have this platform for a personal stance,” she said. “I want to help women. In order to live a long and productive life, we really have to take control of our biological aging process and our health. How do we do that? We have to constantly upgrade ourselves in our knowledge about nutrition and our food.
“Another thing I’m really passionate about is financial independence. It’s not just for older women. For younger women, it takes time to accumulate wealth. You need discipline, and small actions, consistent small actions, to accumulate wealth. When we become financially independent, we can really pursue what we’re passionate about which will elevate our happiness and hence our overall well-being. I think that’s really so important. Happiness. The confidence.
“In my life, I feel so incredibly confident. I’m very action-oriented. For me, I have to be disciplined, but also creative and resourceful. This is all part of my philosophy of life. It doesn’t matter what you do. My approach to everything I do — I always have something creative or resourceful; I never really go by the book. I like to bend the rules to do something different.
“When I was in college, one of my college friends said, ‘Jian, you always try to be different.’ I said, ‘I’m not trying.’”