The traditional pageant queen is generalized as being a blonde haired, blue eyed beauty, who exudes grace and poise and who just wants to see the world at peace. Beauty pageants that favor this standard have been around for a long time — the first Miss America was crowned in 1922, and the Miss USA pageant (the winner of which goes on to compete for Miss Universe) was founded in 1952.
In the Miss USA pageant, contestants are judged on modeling an evening gown and a bathing suit and, if they make the top five, they also answer an interview question. For Miss America, the ladies also model evening wear and a bathing suit, and the top eight show off their talent and answer an interview question. You can see why physical appearances are so important in these pageants, with such a big portion of them focusing on looks; the girls are expected to look thin, fit and classically feminine in their dresses and bikinis.
Not every Miss America or Miss USA contestant fits into this traditional pageant mold, however. Take a look at these six girls who were brave enough to compete for the coveted beauty queen titles, despite being a little different from the norm.
6) Miss Indiana USA Mekayla Diehl
Just weeks ago, Mekayla Diehl, who represented Indiana in the Miss USA pageant, shocked crowds with her “normal” body shape. The 25-year-old boasts a size four figure; although that’s way below the norm compared to the average American woman who is a size 14, it’s definitely a bit larger – and healthier – than most Miss USA contestants.
While lots of contestants dropped pounds for the competition, Diehl actually gained weight as she prepared to strut her stuff in a bikini on national TV. The athletic young woman put on muscle mass because she worked out so much while maintaining a high protein diet. Diehl told People that she was happy about the positive attention she got from the pageant, “If I’m inspiring,” she said, “then in the end, I’ve won in more ways than I could have imagined.”
Diehl unfortunately didn’t make the top 10 for Miss USA, but we still consider her role in the pageant a success. Diehl was born and raised in Indiana, although her childhood was far from ideal. Both of Diehl’s parents had issues with drug abuse and when she was only eight years old, Diehl was molested by an older man. That’s what inspired Diehl’s platform for Miss USA , which was raising awareness of child abuse. The Albion College graduate and winner of Miss Indiana USA has shown how to be a strong woman and overcome adversity for more than just her body type. In the end, she says, “I’m confident in my own skin… I didn’t really worry about my weight. In the end, it’s just a number.”
5) Miss Kentucky Djuan Trent
Djuan Trent won the title of Miss Kentucky and went on to place in the top ten at the Miss America 2011 pageant. This classic beauty may look like your average Miss America hopeful, but a few years after the pageant was over, she took to her blog to write about what made her feel a bit different from all the other girls, “I am queer.”
With that statement, Trent became the first ever Miss America contestant to come out as gay. Trent had openly advocated for Gay Rights for years before coming out herself. In her blog post, she wrote that all the public figures who are openly heterosexual gave her the courage to join their ranks. She wrote, “Thank you for giving me the courage to change my ‘they’ to ‘we’.”
Trent grew up in a Baptist family, which she says made it difficult for her to come to terms with her sexuality. Trent tried to talk to her mom about her confusing feelings in fourth grade and in college, but her mom brushed them aside. She came out to her family for the final time when she was 26.
4) Miss America Nina Davuluri
When Nina Davuluri was crowned as Miss America 2014, she made history as the first ever Indian-American winner. Davuluri, who won Miss Michigan’s Outstanding Teen in 2006 and then Miss New York, has always been bright and ambitious. Not everyone was happy that this talented young woman won the crown, however.
Right after the announcement was made, people took to the Internet to berate the pageant for awarding the crown to someone who “wasn’t American enough.” One tweet about Davuluri read, “This is Miss America… Not Miss Foreign Country.” Some even confused her Indian heritage as Arabian or Muslim and labeled her as a terrorist. Tweets like “#MissAmerica ummm wtf? Have we forgotten 9/11?” and “This is Miss America not miss terrorist” showed how misinformed many Americans are.
Davuluri responded to the criticism with the poise of true Miss America. She said in a press conference, “I’m so happy this organization has embraced diversity. I’m thankful there are children watching at home who can finally relate to a new Miss America.” As for the racist remarks of some, Davuluri said, “I have to rise above that.” Although Davuluri is proud of her Indian heritage, she said, “I always viewed myself as first and foremost American.”
3) Miss Kansas Theresa Vail
Theresa Vail broke Miss America history as the second woman from the armed services to compete, and was the very first to show off tattoos in the swim suit portion of the pageant. Vail enlisted in the Army National Guard when she was 17 years old, and despite reenlisting, she has also earned degrees in both Chinese and Chemistry from Kansas State University. Vail loves the outdoors and going hunting with her dad. In fact, she wanted to show off her archery skills for Miss America’s talent portion, however, in her own words, “I guess the Miss America organization has an insurance clause against projectile objects.” Vail ended up singing instead.
With the platform of breaking stereotypes and empowering women, Vail came in the top 10 for Miss America 2014, although she lost the crown to Miss New York, Nina Davuluri. Vail was never worried about the win, though. Before the pageant, she tweeted, “Win or not tonight, I have accomplished what I set out to do. I have empowered women. I have opened eyes.” Vail is going to continue her influence in the public spotlight with a new show on the Outdoor Channel entitled, Limitless With Theresa Vail, which is set to air this July.
2) Miss Montana Alexis Wineman
Alexis Wineman is another outstanding woman who broke ground at the Miss America pageant; she’s the first contestant with autism to ever vie for the crown. Wineman was diagnosed with autism when she was 11 years old and is considered to be on the “high functioning” end of the spectrum. Her quirks made it difficult for her to fit in with her classmates in grade school, and she had frequent meltdowns at home. In high school, Wineman became more involved in extracurriculars and was able to garner healthy friendships at school. As the youngest of four kids, it was only near the end of high school that Wineman started thinking about how she would be able to afford going to college.
Although she was never a girly-girl, Wineman entered the Miss Montana competition to try to earn scholarship money to further her education. She won and went on to compete for Miss America 2013. Although she didn’t win the crown, Wineman was voted “America’s Choice” by an online poll for the public. During her year-long reign as Miss Montana and even afterwards, Wineman traveled across Montana and even out-of-state to raise awareness for autism.
1) Miss Canada contestant Jenna Talackova
Jenna Talackova didn’t have an easy time entering into the Miss Universe Canada pageant, and it wasn’t for her lack of good looks. The transgender woman was disqualified from the competition when the officials learned she was born as a boy, and not a girl. Talackova wouldn’t take no for answer, and immediately hired a lawyer when she got the news.
Before the case went to trial, Donald Trump, who owns Miss Universe, reversed the rule that contestants have to be natural born females. Because of Talackova, anyone who is legally considered a female in their country, no matter how they were born, is now eligible for Miss Universe. Talackova made it to the top 12 at Miss Canada 2012, and although she didn’t win the crown, she did earn the title of Miss Congeniality.
Ever since she was little, Talackova knew something “wasn’t right” and began to realize she was “in the wrong body.” After years of therapy, Talackova began taking hormones and eventually underwent surgery to become a complete physical woman. Talackova said about her role in changing Miss Universe, “I feel like the universe, the creator just put me in this position as an advocate… If it’s helping anybody else, my story and my actions, then I feel great about it.”