Beauty pageants conjure images of perpetually smiling, picture-perfect women in bikinis or formalwear, nary a wheelchair or surgical scar in sight. But Jordan Somer has given traditional pageants a makeover with her nonprofit organization Miss Amazing, which organizes pageants to empower and celebrate girls and women with disabilities, both visible and otherwise.
Since launching in 2007, the organization has expanded to 32 states, reaching 1,700 girls and women to date (any person with a disability who identifies as female is eligible). It will host its fifth national pageant this August.
As a kid, Somer volunteered in food pantries and nursing homes, but the celebratory environment of Special Olympics really made an impression on her. “I knew that this is a community that I wanted to be involved with a little bit more,” says Somer, who’s now 23 and a graduate of New York University.
While a high school freshman a decade ago back in Omaha, Nebraska, Somer planned and executed her first Miss Amazing pageant with 15 participants. “It was really humble,” she remembers. “We had a potluck dinner, and all of the volunteers were personal connections of mine. But the spirit of it remains in our program today.”
After Teen Nickelodeon featured Somer and Miss Amazing in a special segment and Pepsi-Cola provided a $25,000 grant, Somer scaled up Miss Amazing to other cities and filed for nonprofit status, which is received in 2011.
The Miss Amazing pageants now held across the country are all volunteer-run, annual events. “We’ve taken the aspects of pageantry like performance, ambassadorship and sisterhood, and made them open and available for girls and women with disabilities,” Somer explains.
We’ve taken aspects of pageantry like performance, ambassadorship and sisterhood, and made them available for women with disabilities.
Participants get paired up with a buddy (who may or may not have a disability) who helps guide them through the pageant process. Local salons provide volunteer hair and makeup services to make participants feel extra special (but Somer is quick to point out that hair and makeup are optional).
During the day, participants complete a one-on-one interview with judges. The night of the pageant, they introduce themselves onstage to the audience. “They step in front of stage and have an experience to public speak and share with the audience how they define themselves,” Somer says. “The gown portion is extremely important for girls and women who don’t use words to communicate.” The optional talent portion is not judged, but many participants enjoy the chance to strut their stuff by singing, dancing, even presenting poetry or art or displaying sign language skills.
In our “every kid gets a trophy” culture, one might expect that every Miss Amazing participant goes home a winner. Not exactly. “We don’t believe they should be exempt from the experience of competition,” Somer says. “We crown every one of the participants as princesses to have that memento of what they’ve all accomplished onstage, but in each of the six age divisions, the points that the judges have given all of the participants are averaged to find the representative in each of those age divisions.” State-level winners continue to the national event, and Miss Amazing names one runner-up in each division just in case.
After her first pageant in 2015, Tiffani Johnson, age 23, was crowned 2015 Iowa Miss Amazing Jr Miss Queen and then 2015 National Miss Amazing Jr Miss Queen. Johnson, who has Down’s syndrome, says she was overwhelmed and proud when she won her national title. “I feel like I can do anything if I put my mind to it,” she adds.
The gown portion is extremely important for girls and women who don’t use words to communicate.
Johnson’s mother Christy says Miss Amazing has helped build her daughter’s confidence. “The whole thing is a bonding experience,” she says. “There are girls who are maybe lower functioning than she is, and she just gets this mother feeling that kicks in with her. It’s really amazing watching her with the group of girls.”
Johnson still FaceTimes with some of the friends she’s made through Miss Amazing. She’s also had several speaking engagements, including a fundraising gala for GiGi’s Playhouse where she helped sell a record number of raffle tickets. “Their strategy was no one would tell Tiffani no,” Christy adds.
Rhode Island seventeen-year-old Rachel Arruda was crowned the 2016 National Miss Amazing Teen. “I didn’t go to nationals expecting to win,” she says. “I just went to have fun and I love dressing up, so it was going to be fun and I’d meet new people.”
Arruda recently spoke at the Massachusetts state pageant about the challenges of invisible disabilities. “I have Asperger’s syndrome and you can’t always tell when somebody has a disability,” she says. “It’s important to represent that people can have struggles even if you can’t see them and that no disability is necessarily harder than one or the other.”
It’s important to represent that people can have struggles even if you can’t see them and that no disability is necessarily harder than one or the other.
Because Arruda’s Asperger’s isn’t as visible as other disabilities, teachers don’t always know to make accommodations and help her stay organized. Or others may not realize that when she says what’s she’s thinking, it’s because she admittedly doesn’t have a great filter, not because she’s being rude, Arruda adds.
“It’s really interesting to see how different people—people that have disabilities and people who don’t have disabilities—how we can all come together and have a great time and form great friendships,” Arruda says.
Beyond the outward benefit of new friendships, Somer says the pageant has also helped people reflect inward. “[It’s] suggested to many of the participants that you can accomplish greatness, you have huge potential,” she says. “A lot of the participants who’ve been involved in the program have gone out and started a community project and have gained a deeper understanding of what their self worth is.”