Beauty pageants are like olives – you either love them or you hate them.
Whatever your feelings, you can’t deny the magnetic pull that pageantry has. It’s a glitzy and glamorous affair representing one of the nation’s oldest traditions. Popular beauty pageants such as the Miss America Organization and Miss USA have been staples of American culture for a century, getting its start as a celebration of classic American beauty.
Recently, however, as more and more harmful stereotypes are denounced and reconsidered, beauty pageants have been cast under a skeptical light. Many pageants have completely rebranded their organizations to fit with the changing times, like allowing transgender women to compete or eliminating the swimsuit portion of competition.
However, one pageant has remained true to its values – with good reason.
Beautiful Girls Everywhere
It all began in 2007, when founder Jordan Somer was 12 years old. She volunteered at a Special Olympics event, and during the award ceremony, one athlete caught her attention.
“She didn’t win the gold, silver, or bronze, but when she stepped up to the platform to receive her award, she threw her arms in the air and yelled to screaming supporters, ‘I did it, I did it!’” Somer said. “I immediately fell in love with this environment — one that celebrated effort and grit. I wanted to create something new for those with disabilities, and my mind immediately went to pageants.”
It was that moment that inspired Somer to start the Miss Amazing pageant, an empowering annual competition for young girls and women with physical and intellectual disabilities. The first pageant was held in Omaha, Nebraska, with just 15 participants.
Somer competed in pageants as a kid and considered it a positive experience. To her, it was less about beauty and makeup and more about personal advocacy, philanthropy and meeting new friends. She created Miss Amazing in hopes of fostering a national self-esteem movement for those who often fall under the radar, or might not be afforded the same opportunities as their able-bodied peers. Now, in 2023, there are 36 states with ties to the program, with all Midwestern states actively participating.
Bringing Back the Joy
The Miss Amazing pageant has taken off across the nation. This past February, dozens of competitors aged five to 36 arrived at Urbandale High School in Central Iowa to compete for the title of Miss Iowa Amazing 2023. On their docket was a fun-filled weekend of interviews, hair and makeup sessions and preparation for the final show. One of the most exciting aspects of the show, according to the participants, was the Passion Presentation phase of competition. Each contestant was given the opportunity to showcase a skill or hobby that they are most passionate about. Singing, cheerleading and flag twirling were among the fan favorites.
Hayley Buettel, an Iowa native and runner up at Miss Iowa USA, had the privilege of judging the pageant that weekend.
“Everyone brings their own spirit and skill sets to the table, so it’s extremely hard to pick a winner,” Buettel said. “For the girls, it’s less about winning and more about having the time of their lives.”
At the end of the competition, three new queens were crowned as Iowa titleholders, and will advance to nationals and vie for the prestigious title of Miss Amazing 2023. Morgan Tooley, co-director for Iowa Miss Amazing, hopes to keep the organization running as long as possible.
“People tend to underestimate people with disabilities sometimes,” Tooley said. “Our organization is about completely dispelling that stereotype and putting them up on a platform where they can define themselves and show everyone how special they truly are.”