‘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
‘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.
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.