Transgender, indigenous contestants in historic Miss Universe pageant
BANGKOK: Like many other Miss Universe contestants, Miss Angela Ponce grew up watching the glitzy spectacle on television, dreaming of representing her country one day.
This year, her wish has come true, as she makes history as the first transgender contestant in the beauty pageant's 66-year history.
"Trans women have been persecuted and erased for so long. I am showing that trans women can be whatever they want," said Miss Ponce, who was crowned Miss Spain earlier this year.
"I am proud to have the opportunity to use this platform for a message of inclusion, tolerance and respect for the LGBT+ community," she said in an interview in Bangkok, where the finale is to be held on Dec 17.
The Miss Universe Organisation, which owns the pageant, lifted a ban on transgender contestants in 2012.
Picked by several online bookies as the favourite to win the crown, Miss Ponce volunteers with a non-profit in Spain that works with children and families dealing with gender identity issues.
Transgender children often struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts, she said.
"I was born into a world, into a society that really wasn't prepared for me. I had the support of my family, but I still faced discrimination and I had no role models," she said.
"So many children face discrimination for being different. It is important to tell them they have a right to be who they are, who they want to be."
Miss Ponce, 26, said she was shut out of several fashion competitions because she is transgender.
"When I won Miss Spain, I was so excited," she said.
"As they were placing the crown, I just shut my eyes to take it in, because I knew it was a very significant moment."
Also significantly, this year's Miss Universe features its first all-woman selection panel.
Among the 94 contestants is another woman who has battled prejudice and is also making history as Panama's first indigenous Miss Universe contestant.
"When I entered the competition, there was a lot of criticism; people attacked me on Instagram and in the media, and said I should not be allowed to compete," said Miss Rosa Montezuma, her eyes welling up.
There are an estimated 370 million indigenous people in the world, according to the United Nations.
They make up less than 5 per cent of the global population, but account for 15 per cent of the poorest as they are denied land rights and access to education and healthcare.
"Indigenous people have a lot of traditional knowledge, but we are not given the same opportunities," said Miss Montezuma, 25.
"This is a great platform for me to reach the whole world and show that indigenous girls can also be successful." - REUTERS