‘Just be­cause I’M IN A wheel­chair, DOESN’T MEAN I’m not beau­ti­ful!’

AT A BEAUTY COM­PE­TI­TION FOR GIRLS AND WOMEN WITH SPE­CIAL NEEDS, A GROUP IS DE­LIGHTED TO BE SEEN AS SOME­THING OTHER THAN DIS­ABLED

Marie Claire (South Africa) - - INTERNATIONAL REPORT - WORDS SU­SAN­NAH BRES­LIN

‘can I bor­row you?’ Abbey Cur­ran asks and ex­tends an arm. She hooks her arm around mine and to­gether we walk the red car­pet that has been rolled out in the lobby of Ke­wa­nee High School,where she was a pupil eight years ago.Wear­ing a one-shoul­der choco­late-brown dress with a pouf skirt and rhine­stones at the waist, the 26-year-old moves with a de­ter­mined hitch to her gait, her slen­der, per­fectly tanned legs buck­ling slightly at the knees, un­fazed by her Per­spex high heels. At the age of two she was di­ag­nosed with cere­bral palsy, a neu­ro­log­i­cal dis­or­der that im­pairs mo­bil­ity. Tonight, Cur­ran, who was crowned Miss Iowa in 2008, is pre­sid­ing over a dif­fer­ent kind of beauty com­pe­ti­tion, one she founded 10 years ago for girls and women with spe­cial needs: the Miss You Can Do It Pageant.

Cur­ran grew up in Ke­wa­nee, a town in north-west Illi­nois, billed as the Hog Cap­i­tal of the World. It is sur­rounded by rolling green hills dot­ted with red barns and grain si­los. Her par­ents, a hog farmer and a nurse, re­fused to treat their daugh­ter, an only child, like an in­valid.‘They never told me that I couldn’t do any­thing,’ she says. In­stead, they pushed her to do any­thing she wanted, with one con­di­tion: she couldn’t quit.

Early on, Cur­ran was ob­sessed with pageants. As a lit­tle girl, she would dress up in gowns to watch the Miss USA and Miss Amer­ica com­pe­ti­tions on TV. ‘I just liked the girly-girly as­pect,’ she con­fesses. In high school, she dis­cov­ered, to her dis­may, that boys her age didn’t con­sider her girl­friend ma­te­rial. She was pretty, but she felt that they couldn’t see be­yond her disability. So, she signed up to com­pete in the beauty pageant at the county fair. People told her she was crazy. She was placed in the top 10.

Af­ter high school, she en­rolled at St Am­brose Univer­sity in Daven­port, Iowa,and grad­u­ated in busi­ness com­mu­ni­ca­tions.One day an ap­pli­ca­tion for the Miss Iowa USA pageant ar­rived in the post. A fam­ily friend who worked in the pageant world told her that even con­sid­er­ing ap­ply­ing was ab­surd. Ac­cord­ing to the woman, Cur­ran re­calls, ‘There are people who are meant to be in the NFL, and people who aren’t, and I’m not meant for the NFL, in terms of Miss USA pageants.’ The dis­cour­age­ment only strength­ened her re­solve. She be­came the first dis­abled par­tic­i­pant in Miss USA his­tory. And then, im­prob­a­bly, she won the Miss Iowa ti­tle. When she was named the win­ner, her knees gave way, and she had to be sup­ported so that she wouldn’t col­lapse. ‘I didn’t be­lieve it all,’ she says. She burst into tears as they placed the crown on her head.‘I’m re­ally an ugly crier,’ she ob­serves.

Still, it wasn’t just about be­ing a beauty queen. She wanted to do more for girls like her. At 16, she started the non-profit Miss You Can Do It Pageant. She’d had so much fun com­pet­ing in pageants that she wanted young women with spe­cial needs to have that ex­pe­ri­ence, too. On stage, dressed up and com­pet­ing for a tiara, Cur­ran found that her disability had faded away. She wasn’t that girl with cere­bral palsy any more. She was a young woman ev­ery­body wanted to be like. That’s what she wanted for other dis­abled girls: that mo­ment of free­dom in the spot­light.

Last sum­mer, a doc­u­men­tary about the pageant’s 10th an­niver­sary was broad­casted on HBO in the US. Since it aired, Cur­ran has re­ceived more than 10 000 e-mails telling her that she’s an in­spi­ra­tion.

The Miss You Can Do It Pageant isn’t about girls be­ing crowned the pret­ti­est.They all go home with a crown, a tro­phy, a sash and a gift box.‘It’s not about turn­ing your whole self into this fake lit­tle doll,’ Cur­ran says. ‘It’s about show­ing the girls that they can do any­thing that they want to do. And [that] ev­ery­one loves you for who you are, and ev­ery­one falls, and ev­ery­one has flaws, and ev­ery­one is wor­ried about what other people think.’ For these girls, it’s a chance to be, well, nor­mal.

‘It’s about show­ing the

girls that they can do any­thing that they want to do’

Jackie Ger­stung, a for­mer Texas beauty queen, trav­elled to the pageant from Nazareth in Penn­syl­va­nia, with her 20-year-old daugh­ter,Vic­to­ria, who has cere­bral palsy and had seen Cur­ran on a talk show and de­clared, ‘I have to do this!’ Ger­stung, who had com­peted in Miss Hous­ton and Miss Texas, says of her daugh­ter,‘She never lets any­thing step in her way.’

Crit­ics may think those who com­pete for tiaras are su­per­fi­cial but, in the low-slung brick build­ing where the pageant takes place, an es­cape into girly-girly land is a wel­come re­lief for those who find get­ting out of bed a Her­culean strug­gle and be­ing stared at a fact of daily life.

For Vic­to­ria, Ger­stung be­lieves, the pageant is a chance for people to see the per­son, not the disability. Her daugh­ter’s at­ti­tude, she says, is: ‘I want people to know I’m beau­ti­ful, in­stead of just fo­cus­ing on my chair.’

Back­stage, the dress­ing room is packed with girls get­ting into gowns, moth­ers fix­ing up‘dos and friends chat­ter­ing.Vic­to­ria,who is sport­ing a high pony­tail and wear­ing a cheer­leader out­fit, has a tray of eye shadow in her lap. She has come pre­pared with tips on style and work­ing a crowd from her mother, who waits in an­other room and seems more ner­vous than her daugh­ter. Vic­to­ria’s goal is ‘just to have fun. It’s a good ex­pe­ri­ence. Be­ing with these kids means the world to me,’ she says.‘Be­cause they’re dis­abled. And I’m dis­abled.’

Pete San­tee, who works at a casino in Rock Is­land, Illi­nois (‘When you hit a jack­pot, I’m the guy who comes over and pays you’), is back for the third time with Shya Hughes,18,the daugh­ter of a friend,Dina Sev­erts­gaard. He is gay and Shya is autis­tic, and when they first met eight years ago they

clicked, he says.‘Shya rec­og­nized a dif­fer­ence. She knew,“Pete’s dif­fer­ent, and I’m dif­fer­ent”, and we just con­nected right away, and it’s been a fa­ther­daugh­ter love story ever since. We’re like the “Will & Grace” of Iowa,’ he adds.‘Straight mom. Gay best friend. And Shya’s the autis­tic daugh­ter.’

The pageant is the high­light of Shya’s year. Her strat­egy, she tells me, is to ‘do the best I can, act beau­ti­ful and show a lit­tle sassy’. She snaps her fin­gers in the air to em­pha­size her point. ‘It’s Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe,’ she says, re­fer­ring to her white dress. I ask her what’s most beau­ti­ful about her.‘My big heart is show­ing the people how beau­ti­ful I am,’ she says.

Ali Shanks, who is eight, has spina bi­fida and uses a wheel­chair.This is her sec­ond time com­pet­ing.‘I’m spe­cial,’ she tells me.‘I’m spe­cial and it’s

‘My big heart is show­ing the people how beau­ti­ful I am’

good.’ At her school there was only one other girl who used a wheel­chair. ‘But here,’ she says, scan­ning the clus­ters of girls, some in wheel­chairs, some with walk­ers, some with men­tal dis­abil­i­ties, ‘it’s al­most ev­ery­body.’ For one night, Ali ap­pears to have for­got­ten her disability and day-to-day re­al­ity and is lit up from the thrill.

When Jackie Ger­stung learnt that Vic­to­ria had cere­bral palsy, she says that she ‘felt like I just landed in a for­eign coun­try and didn’t know the lan­guage’. Ali’s mother, Peggy, learnt of her daugh­ter’s con­di­tion in an ul­tra­sound at 19 weeks.‘We didn’t even know what it was, so we were very scared.’

It’s a chal­lenge, she says, brim­ming with tears, ‘but it’s been a joy. I mean, she’s the best thing that’s ever hap­pened to us.’Ac­cord­ing to Peggy, Cur­ran has in­spired Ali with her can-do at­ti­tude ever since they met at a re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­tre in Evansville, her and Ali’s home­town in In­di­ana.‘The first thing that Ali says is,“Mom, she walks like me, and she wears heels.”Ali loves high heels. She saw some­one else who walks dif­fer­ently who wore high heels, and that was it.’

two young women, one dressed as Snow White and the other as Cin­derella, en­ter to coos from the small girls who flock around them. The au­di­to­rium is packed with sev­eral hun­dred spec­ta­tors: fam­ily, friends and fans. The show’s MC is Jenni Pu­los, the star of Flip­ping Out, a re­al­ity tele­vi­sion show in which she is the as­sis­tant to a flam­boy­ant Los Angeles in­te­rior de­signer, Jeff Lewis. She stands be­hind a podium dec­o­rated with Hol­ly­wood stars.The con­test be­gins with ca­su­al­wear. One by one, the 40-odd can­di­dates ven­ture out onto the stage. The youngest girls are es­corted by Snow White or Cin­derella, the older girls by men in black tie. Ev­ery­one is ap­plauded. Pu­los shouts af­fir­ma­tions from the side­lines:‘That’s my girl!’‘She is shin­ing!’‘Watch out, Naomi Camp­bell!’The girls do the pageant wave, the stage strut, the cat­walk turn. Shya stops in front of the judges, twirls and waves like the Queen. ‘Yes, spin it, girl, and show it!’ Pu­los hollers.Vic­to­ria rock­ets across the stage in her chair, wav­ing a pom-pom.

A quick change, and the evening­wear com­pe­ti­tion be­gins. Pu­los asks ev­ery par­tic­i­pant the same ques­tion:‘If you could have any dream come true, what would it be?’ One girl wants to be an ac­tress. One girl longs to own a goat farm. One girl wishes for ‘ev­ery­one not to make fun of me’. An­other ex­presses a de­sire to get rid of her ‘stupid walker’. Vic­to­ria, who has switched into a sil­ver dress with a shim­mer­ing bodice and chif­fon skirt, in­tends to at­tend col­lege,‘like all my other friends’. For those girls who are un­able to com­mu­ni­cate, Pu­los reads their pre-writ­ten an­swers from in­dex cards, the girls stand­ing be­side her gaz­ing out at the crowd.

For the crown­ing, the girls re­turn to the stage, grouped by age.Tro­phies are awarded for be­ing pho­to­genic, for best ca­su­al­wear, for the on-stage ques­tion. Some girls col­lect a slew of tro­phies. Ali is named fourth run­nerup in the Lit­tle Miss cat­e­gory. Awed, she places a black-gloved hand over her mouth. She waves dra­mat­i­cally at the au­di­ence. Her tro­phy is al­most as tall as she is in her wheel­chair.

Fi­nally, the older girls take the stage. Vic­to­ria wins Best Per­sonal In­ter­view, Best On-stage Ques­tion, and the People’s Choice award. Even­tu­ally, there are two left: Vic­to­ria and Natasha Nim­rick, a cheery 17-year-old from Ke­wa­nee who has cere­bral palsy, suf­fers seizures and is hear­ing im­paired. Nim­rick is a vet­eran: this is her 10th try. She wins.

Back­stage, the girls pose for pho­to­graphs. I ask Nim­rick what Cur­ran means to her.‘She means the world to me, be­cause of how she tells me, “You can do it, no mat­ter what,”’ she says with a grin.‘She said,“Never give up,” and I never give up.’

In the lobby, I find Vic­to­ria clutch­ing a bou­quet of red roses, five tro­phies lined up in front of her, with her mother on one side and her fa­ther on the other. How does it feel to be a beauty queen, I ask.‘Awe­some,’ she says.

At the af­ter-party, the girls dance to live mu­sic, one twirling in her wheel­chair. I find Shya.‘I didn’t win the crown,’ she says, re­signed,‘but at least I made new friends.’ At the bar, I talk to Cur­ran’s mother, Katie, who de­scribes her­self as ‘not a pageant per­son at all’. I ask what drives her daugh­ter. ‘I raised her like I would any other child,’ she says as the party continues into the night.

Tier­ney McKown with her Ju­nior Miss You Can Do It tro­phy.

FOUNDER ABBEY CUR­RAN

Abbey Cur­ran, who has cere­bral palsy and founded the pageant 10 years

ago. Op­po­site Natasha Nim­rick, 17, tri­umphs on her 10th stab at the Miss You Can Do It Pageant ti­tle.

WIN­NER NATASHA NIM­RICK

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