“Accomplishment begins with two words: I’ll Try! We never know unless we try.” In a world full of “you can’ts” hearing that phrase was not only surprising, but life changing. The advice came to me from a Former Miss America. Up until that point I was shy, afraid and ashamed but hearing that sentence was like seeing a lifeboat when you are on the Titanic.
I was born with Cerebral Palsy and spent my first 16 years hating every single minute of it. Finally I was fed up. It was my junior year of high school and it was almost time for the County Fair. Our fair is known for the Fair Queen Pageant, the most popular and beautiful girls compete. I don’t know why I did it, I suppose because I wanted to fit in with the “populars” for one second but I said in front of my entire class that I was going to compete. I wasn’t being serious, not at all, but the reaction I got from my classmates and teachers, even family, made me so upset I became determined to prove them all wrong. Everyone laughed at me and told me I couldn’t do it, no way, that I didn’t belong in “that group”. Angry is an understatement.
So I entered that pageant. My anger made me full of determination! I competed, and wore a sequin strapless gown with no bra so straps wouldn’t show. And then, because of how I walk with my right side down I flashed the entire grandstand! Despite that mishap, I still placed in the top ten. During the experience, I learned that other girls that went to my high school who also had a disability wanted to enter the pageant but didn’t because they too weren’t given support when they said they wanted to.
After placing in that Fair Queen pageant, I wasn’t done. I placed in five other pageants, and eventually was crowned Miss Iowa in 2008, which allowed me to compete in the Miss USA Pageant. Inspired by my own achievements, and realizing how important it was to me to not only have fulfilled these accomplishments but create path for others, I came up with an idea, “The Miss You Can Do It” Pageant. It was always my intention to change the name to something great but I could never think of anything and so “you can do it” stuck. It was a small pageant, with onlyten contestantsthat included girls and women with special needs and other types of challenges. I had dreamed of this huge Miss America, firework display, tux and limo type of event but that didn’t happen. I thought I’d give it one more year and if it wasn’t successful then I’d end it. Fortunately, each year we’d get a little bigger so I kept thinking, “Just one more year!”
Finally a miracle happened. HBO came to me wanting to film a documentary in 2011. They took me on a road trip across the US to find contestants of all ages, shapes and sizes. Contestants I had never been able to reach. Finally with their help my vision came to life. Lights, moving cameras, tux and limos, even a red carpet. I can’t say HBO is a dream come true because my dreams aren’t that big, I have never dreamed in my wildest dreams that HBO would want to film my pageant!
If I am being honest, the Miss You Can Do It Pageant has been and continues to be my biggest nightmare as well as my heart’s desire all at once. It’s stressful, I am constantly searching for sponsors. Then I get phone calls from grandmothers saying what hell their granddaughter as been through and how she deserves to come and compete and they live a million miles away and could I please find a way to pay for them to get here. That’s the awful part. The amazing part is pageant weekend and seeing these shy, scared girls find their voice and their confidence. Has anyone ever told a woman with severe Cerebral Palsy who has a difficult time talking and stuck in a wheelchair that she is “Smoking hot, super sexy…..?” Well, we do!
The Miss You Can Do It Pageant isn’t about winning. It’s not about fitting in and having me baby you for the weekend. It’s more like a boot camp for the contestants and their families. I can’t help but laugh when a mom email me and says “my daughter is all set for pageant weekend but she can’t do this and etc.” In response,I always say that she can or you shouldn’t of entered her in Miss YOU CAN Do It!
This pageant is about pushing these girls, making them try things they never believed they could accomplish. They are asked to give a private interview with a panel of judges (with no moms or helpers allowed). They also are required to peform an opening dance number and answer an on-stage question independently. Now, all of this makes a lot of parents nervous often, but I encourage them all because that’s the point! Stop holding them back! THEY CAN DO IT! And they do….and after all “Accomplishment begins with I’ll try!”
The former Miss America, Shirley Barret gave me that advice when I was first thinking about competing in the Miss Iowa USA Pageant. I kept saying what if they laugh? Make fun of me? What if I fall? She changed my life when she replied to my questions, “What’s the worst that could happen? You don’t win and you come home and live the same life you always have, or maybe you will win and go on to Miss USA…..you’ll never know unless you try!” Those words changed my life. Those words keep me from crying about my disability. They made me a stronger more confident person. And those words are what the Miss You Can Do It Pageant is all about–challenging these beautiful girls and women and showing them what I already know…. They can do anything they set their minds to doing if they just have the courage to try!
As for me, I’ve come a long way from that day students in my class laughed at me for having a dream. And, exciting things are happening! I just wrote a book “The Courage to Compete,” which is coming out Sept 8th. I’ve learned that in pushing myself through the barriers of others sometimes harsh opinions and judgments, I was able to fulfill not only my own goals, living up to my life’s potential, but create a path to encourage countless others to do the same.