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Top 15 Most Influential Women in Pageantry

28, April 2021

Our mission at Pageant Planet is to connect and expand the pageant industry, with the ultimate goal of motivating ALL girls to participate in pageants. We believe that the world of pageantry is for everyone who wants to be a part of it, and that the pageant stage should be an open and welcoming place where every contestant can experience a sense of belonging.

With those values in mind, we wanted to create something special for our readers, in honor of International Women's Day. We want to acknowledge and promote the diversity of the pageant industry by celebrating some of the uniquely outstanding women who have made a significant impact as contestants and titleholders. With thousands of women and young ladies participating in pageants around the globe every year, naturally there are going to be scores of remarkable individuals who have made a difference or contributed in monumental ways, because that is one of the most positive aspects of pageantry.

Therefore, we were determined to choose a selection of women who came from a wide variety of backgrounds and different walks of life. We wanted to find a group of individuals who paid more attention to that small voice inside of themselves then they did to the opinions of others, and as a result became undoubtedly determined in chasing their destiny. 

In other words, we want to challenge the stereotypes that so many still adhere to when they think of a "pageant girl." Sadly, there are so many people outside of the pageant industry who still subscribe to the outdated notion that the girls who compete in pageants are all exactly the same. What is even more unfortunate, is that this inaccurate view of the people who compete in pageants, has had a far reaching ripple effect, so that many women and young ladies believe that they could not possibly get involved in pageants because they wrongly assume that they are not the "pageant type." 

And, worse still are those that feel that pageants are not for them because they have bought into the lies that women are bombarded with every day; that we are not enough in some way. It is a tragic reality of our time, that women in our culture still have to deal with the constant barrage of negative messages that imply that we are not beautiful enough, not thin enough, not young enough, not smart enough, not accomplished enough, talented enough, outgoing enough and on and on. It is no wonder that so many women miss out on all the incredible things that pageants can offer them because they are convinced that they do not measure up in any number of ways.

It is our sincere hope that by featuring this list of courageous and audacious women, that our readers will come away with a renewed spirit of optimism about their own place in the pageant industry, as well as a determined mindset towards what they, too, can reach success not only in pageantry, but also in their personal lives and in the world around them.

Top 15 Most Influential Women in Pageantry

1. Madeline Elizabeth Delp

Madeline Elizabeth Delp went from being a shy, newly-paralyzed ten-year-old with spinal cord injury to climbing Mt. Rushmore, BASE jumping, traveling the world and winning Ms. Wheelchair USA. She then followed that up by competing as the first girl in a wheelchair to enter Miss North Carolina USA.

Madeline Elizabeth Delp. Photo: Live Boundless

Madeline Delp learned at a young age that sometimes almost losing your life can be the catalyst to truly finding it in a way you never had before. After miraculously surviving a car accident that left her crushed in the back of a car and comatose for several weeks, she woke up to find that she had been paralyzed from the waist down. Madeline soon realized that the physical bounds she faced were small in comparison to the emotional repercussions of paralyzing fear and doubt.

After a multi-continental journey of fear-chasing, Madeline learned that she could refuse to be the victim of her circumstance. that by mastering the mind, one can profoundly reclaim control of their life. Her journey included being the first paraplegic girl to BASE jump in the US, rock climb the cliffs of Mt. Rushmore and drive cross country alone on a national tour. 

Madeline launched her career as a public figure after winning the national competition, Ms. Wheelchair USA. Spending the year traveling and speaking across the United States, she established her reputation as a deeply-moving and inspirational keynote speaker and has been hired for major events, such as conferences at the North Carolina Governor's mansion and the US Senate. Madeline has also partnered with Los Angeles production teams to create film series that complement her keynote message of overcoming and living bold adventures. 

Madeline's ultimate goal is to give back to the world around her, not only by inspiring people to chase boundless dreams, but by also giving them the resources to do so. In 2017, she founded Live Boundless in order to give people hope that they could overcome their physical challenges. The organization helps to deliver wheelchairs to medically-underserved countries. It is her passion to grow the organization to help millions of people around the world, and with a "roll-model" like Madeline at the helm, we know she's bound to succeed!

2. Deshauna Barber

Deshauna Barber made history when she took home the title of Miss USA by being the first winner ever to actively serve in the United States military and to promote veterans issues during her reign.

Deshauna Barber. Photo: Carlos Velez Foto

Captain Barber is a logistics commander in the United States Army Reserve. She commissioned as a Quartermaster Officer in 2011 and a logistics commander for the 988th Quartermaster Detachment Unit at Fort Meade, Maryland and has been serving her country ever since. She joined the United States Army Reserve at age 17, right after graduating from high school. Both of her parents were military veterans and her father is a retired Army master sergeant in the Green Berets who served in Iraq after September 11, 2001.

She attended Virginia State University and graduated with a degree in Business Management. After obtaining a master's degree in Computer Information Systems and Services at the University of Maryland University College, she began working as an IT Analyst with the Department of Commerce. 

Deshauna is a modern renaissance woman who has accomplished phenomenal achievements as a United States Army Officer and as a pageant titleholder, but she is now breaking new ground as a pageant coach, a motivational speaker and an influencer. Her primary purpose is focused on advocating for soldiers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a cause that she is intensely passionate about. In 2020, she took on the role as CEO of the Service Women's Action Network, a nonprofit organization advocating on behalf of all service women and women veterans.

She has said that probably the greatest moment in her life was when she answered the first onstage question at the Miss USA competition, placing her solidly into the Top 3. She had a feeling at that point that "it was meant to be."

The question that became known as the, "Mic Drop Moment" was this:

"The Pentagon recently made the decision to open up all combat jobs to women. . .now some have questioned if this has put political correctness over our military's ability to perform at the highest level. What are your thoughts?"

Deshauna wasted no time with her impeccable response.

"As a woman in the United States Army, I think it is an amazing job by our government to allow women to integrate into every branch of the military," she said as the crowd erupted. "We are just as tough as men. As a commander of my unit I am powerful, I am dedicated and it's important to recognize that gender does not limit us in the United States Army."

3. Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters

During a time when sexual harassment is all too often, front page news, Miss Universe 2017, Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters, created an extremely personal platform that focused on women and self-defense. She then made it her mission to empower women and keep them safe with her "Unbreakable initiative," which she launched in 2017, while she was still Miss South Africa.

Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters Photo: Facebook

Demi-Leight was moved to launch Unbreakable after her own violent carjacking experience in June of 2017. While stopped at a traffic light in her native country, South Africa, her car was surrounded by armed men. She gave up her belongings but was able to survive the attack unharmed by using techniques she'd learned at a self-defense course three months earlier. 

As her story was covered by the local news, Nel-Peters received requests from other women to share about the experience. It was then that she saw an opportunity to create an environment for women to share their stories and learn how to protect themselves. She collaborated with experts including Mark Grobbelaar, who is the founder of the "Woman INpowered Course," which she had just taken prior to her attack. She and her colleagues began hosting Unbreakable workshops in her home country in order to provide women with valuable and life-saving information.

After winning Miss Universe, Nel-Peters used her title to expand the Unbreakable platform internationally. She went on to host workshops in other countries, including Indonesia, Mexico and the United States.

Her worldwide campaign has been incredibly successful because it was designed to empower women with all of the comprehensive information they need to be mentally and physically prepared in the event of a violent attack. And, the fact that Demi was willing to be transparent about the incident, and share her ordeal with the public, made women feel that they were not alone in their own nightmares.

Although she has passed on the crown to a new Miss Universe, Demi-Leigh has no plans on giving up on her Unbreakable initiative. In fact, she wants to make it even bigger and turn Unbreakable into a foundation where she can work with safe havens to bring the empowerment workshops to all of the women they serve.

Knowing just how powerful this woman is, we have no doubt that she will do just that!

4. Kára McCullough

When Kára's McCullough won the Miss USA Crown in 2017, it marked the first time a contestant from the District of Columbia has won the title back-to-back, and only the second time any delegate won back-to-back. That's a pretty outstanding accomplishment, but it's only one of the many things about Kára that is truly remarkable. It just so happens that Kára McCullough is also a "Rocket Scientist"!

Kára's McCullough Photo: Carlos Velez Photo

Well, to be clear, she is more accurately a, "Nuclear Scientist." And, as far as pageant titleholders go, that is pretty darn cool. Kára says that for as long as she can remember, she has been fascinated with science and engineering and the impact it has on our everyday lives. One of her earliest memories as a child was rummaging through a Naval base tower's basement in Japan, where she came across a science kit that had been discarded. 

Her passion for science grew from there, leading her to earn her Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry with a concentration in Radiochemistry from South Carolina State University. Her major provided her opportunities to intern at many universities, which paved the way to her career as a scientist for the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Kára is also the founder of, "Science Exploration for Kids" (SE4K), and SE4G (Science and Engineering for Girls), which creates fun and interactive activities celebrating math and science.  As Miss USA, Kára successfully expanded SE4K throughout the country and internationally to advocate for today's youth to enter STEM career fields. Her goal has always been to cultivate a passion for science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) within children, and she achieved incredible accolades during her reign for doing just that.

After her exciting and inspiring time as Miss USA, Kára began a successful and busy career in public speaking, youth empowerment and pageant coaching. Kára is a very engaging and charismatic speaker and brings a unique approach to her audiences when she shares her experiences and advice. And through her coaching business, Kára offers her pageant clients what she cleverly calls, "The Science of Competition" in brand development, interview skills and walking.

5. Nicole Zwiercan

Nicole is a reporter, professional speaker, certified life coach, beauty queen and special needs advocate. In 2016, Nicole won the title of Mrs. Illinois International, and in 2018, went on to win the title of Mrs. USA Universe. Nicole was honored to be chosen to represent the United States of America in Cebu, Philippines at the 12th Annual Mrs. Universe Pageant where she placed 1st runner-up out of 88 contestants from all over the world. She also was deeply honored to win the 2018 Mrs. Universe Humanitarian Award. 

Nicole Zwiercan. Photo: Steve Neilson

Nicole has dedicated her life's work to her passion of inspiring a more kind and inclusive world working with foundations such as Special Olympics and The Center for Independence Through Conductive Education.

After her daughter received a Cerebral Palsy diagnosis her mission has never been more important to her. Together with her family, she hopes to not only be a voice, but a light for other families also navigating through the storms of diagnosis. . . and to show that it's OK to have a Different Kind of Perfect. She is the author of the blog "It's Simple. Be Kind" which to date, has had over 40,000 visitors from all over the world. 

She currently works as a reporter for the Comcast show Community Connection. Nicole has an extensive professional performance and dance background. She has a black belt in Taekwondo, was a silver medalist in the USA Junior Olympics and a professional dancer with AFL's Chicago Rush and the NBA's Chicago Bulls from 2001-2010.

Through those experiences, she's become comfortable serving as a spokesperson and ambassador for many international companies. Most recently, Nicole was featured in the book "Beyond the Interview: A 52 Week Guide of Inspiration," as one of the top interviews of the year from The Whitney Reynolds Show. She also was named one of Chicago's "Most Inspiring People" by Voyage Chicago Magazine. This past fall, Nicole was chosen to speak on the 2019 Lucy Hobbs Project "Healthy Me" Panel.

She is a proud graduate of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, earning a Bachelor's degree in Studio Fine Arts and Art History. In addition, Nicole has earned a degree in Science and Dental Hygiene from Kennedy King & University of Illinois at Chicago: College of Dentistry.

Nicole lives in Chicago with her husband Dr. Christopher Zwiercan, their five year old son Cristiano, and two year old daughter Ashlynn Grace.

6. Fionnghuala (Fig) O'Reilly

Fig O'Reilly is a fascinating woman, to say the least. She has accomplished so many groundbreaking things that it's hard to know exactly where to start!

Fig is the very first woman of color to become Miss Universe Ireland; in her day job she is a NASA Analyst and she is also the first woman of the well known sorority, "Alpha Kappa Alpha" to compete for Miss Universe. If you're not familiar with Alpha Kappa Alpha, it is the first historically black sorority for women founded in 1908. Other notable members include Coretta Scott King and Maya Angelou.

Fig O'Reilly. Photo: FigOReilly.com

Fig is a member of NASA's Datanaut program within the space agency's Open Innovation program, and also works remotely out of Dublin, Ireland as a director of the NASA Space Apps Challenge. The "Challenge" hosts an international "hackathon" each year in 225 locations globally.

As far as Fig's pageant experience, she competed in Miss District of Columbia USA 2018, where she won a swimsuit award winner and placed as the third runner-up. In January of 2019, she moved back home to Swords, Ireland to be closer to her family and ended up competing in the Miss Universe Ireland 2019 pageant and winning!

Fig is very passionate about her platform, which spotlights the need for diversity and women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).

7. Mikayla Holmgren

Mikayla Holmgren made history at the Miss Minnesota USA pageant, where she became the first woman with Down syndrome to compete in a state Miss USA pageant.  She also won two awards: the Spirit of Miss USA Award and the Director's Award. Holmgren had previously participated in pageants created for women and girls with disabilities, winning the Miss Minnesota Amazing competition.

Mikayla Holmgren. Photo: Instagram

Holmgren's participation in the pageant is Minnesota's latest effort toward inclusion and diversity within the competition. The previous year, Somali-American contestant Halima Aden became the first woman to wear a hijab and a burkini in the beauty pageant. Aden made it all the way to the semi-finals of the Miss Minnesota competition.

Denise Wallace, the executive director of the Miss Minnesota USA pageant was quoted as saying,

"What is amazing and beautiful about this is the fact that women are finally seeing representations of themselves in this capacity. It makes the next woman feel like they can do it, too."

Mikayla's Mother echoes the same sentiment, saying,

"Before Mikayla went out on stage that night, she texted me she said, 'I'm thankful that I'm on stage tonight. I will be the awareness that people need.'"

Mikayla Holmgren hopes her message that true beauty begins on the inside spreads.

"I have special needs and it's really important," Holmgren said. "Dream big without limits."

And, Mikayla has continued to dream. She currently holds the title of, "Minnesota's Miss Amazing 2019" and has become a powerful role model to those with Down Syndrome and other developmental disabilities. She has also found time to branch out into the world of fashion, modeling in L.A. Fashion week and then creating her own fashion show entitled "Dreaming Big Without Limits."

She also serves as an international ambassador for Best Buddies, is a spokesperson at the Pennsylvania State Capitol for the Down Syndrome Protection Act and is an active participant in the Special Olympics. Mikayla received a certificate in Early Childhood Education, and most notably, spoke to the Minnesota Congress to help pass a bill requiring physicians to provide information to families of individuals receiving a trisomy diagnosis.

8. Angela Ponce

Angela, who was born Angel Mario Ponce Camacho in 1991, is a Spanish model and beauty pageant titleholder who made history on June 29th, 2018 as the first transgender woman to win Miss Universe Spain 2018. She represented her country and competed at the Miss Universe pageant in Thailand in December of the same year.

Angela Ponce. Photo: elperiodico

Angela, says that she knew from an early age that she was 'different'. She was only 11 when she began to investigate and discover the concept of "transsexuality" and that awareness gave her the courage to fight for being "who she felt she really was on the inside."

Angela dreamed of competing in pageants but she never imagined she would actually make it very far. Her mission and platform was to become a role model for young people and show them that it's possible to live an incredible life as an openly transgender person.

In 2015, she competed in her very first beauty pageant, "Miss World Cadiz 2015" and ended up winning the title! Her win made history as no other transgender woman had ever represented a province, let alone won the title. But, as wonderful as the achievement was, it brought both positive and negative results for Angela.

She said, "I found out on the day of the competition that their rules didn't allow a transgender woman to win. It crushed me. I had to continue on, go on stage and perform, and it felt horrible."

Angela's experience at Miss World Spain did not break her. If anything, it motivated her to try harder and to chase after her dream. This time she decided to enter another pageant system, the Miss Universe Organization.

In June of 2018, at the age of 26, Angela Ponce again made history when she beat out 20 other contestants and was crowned Miss Universe Spain, becoming the country's first transgender titleholder.

She would then go on to become the first transgender woman to compete on behalf of ANY country, when she got the opportunity to represent Spain at the Miss Universe pageant in Thailand, later that same year. Ponce said that she planned to use her appearance at Miss Universe as a platform to draw attention toward the high rates of suicides among transgender teenagers, as well as the legal codes that still discriminate against them around the world.

"My goal is to be a spokesperson for a message of inclusion, respect and diversity not only for the LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning) community, but also for the entire world," Ponce said. "If my going through all this contributes to the world moving a little step forward, then that's a personal crown that will always accompany me."

9.  Ryann Richardson

In 2018, Ryann Richardson made history when she became the 50th Anniversary Miss Black America, earning the title which allowed her to represent the oldest pageant organization in the United States for women of color. 

Ryann Richardson. Photo: RyannRichardson.com

Ryann is a pageant veteran, spending years as a spokesperson, titleholder, volunteer and judge. She was Miss District of Columbia USA 2017, dedicating her term to supporting efforts to advance the professional, political and economic condition of women and minorities in the District and beyond. Prior to that, she was Miss Philadelphia 2009 and a six-time Miss America state pageant runner-up.

These days, Ryann is a Keynote Speaker and host. On her national "Great Black America Tour" since the summer of 2019, she's reached thousands of people of color, women, marginalized people and allies with talks on social equity, representation and culture. Her TED Talk on the Politics of Beauty and Power comes to TED.com in early 2020 and she stars in the upcoming feature documentary, "Subjects of Desire," exploring the evolution of American beauty standards and the appropriation of Black cultural aesthetics.

She is a technology marketing professional, an entrepreneur and advocate for diversity and inclusion in business and technology. Ryann was previously Vice President and Head of North American Marketing for UK-based marketplace app, Victor, the global leader in private jet charter technology.

Her work earned her a spot as the youngest honoree on Savoy Magazine's list of Most Influential Black Executives in Corporate America and set her on the path of discovering her unique purpose as a champion for underrepresented voices.

Ryann also leads the TAKE UP SPACE MVMT, a social action campaign focused on building social, political and economic power for historically marginalized communities through educational programming, grassroots activism and commercial and non-profit partnerships. 

In discussing the message of "Take Up Space," Ryann says,

"My story, of shrinking and muting myself to survive environments in which I wasn't welcomed, resonated with audiences across America because, ultimately, it was their story as well. Throughout my career, and now through political action, I've learned of the inherent power I harness when I deliberately take up space and made it my mission to empower more of us to do the same." 

10. Ana Gabriela Molina

Ana Gabriela Molina de los Santos, is a young woman with no arms who competed in the Miss Veracruz pageant in Mexico. She had already won the local competition, Miss Nanchital, which was held in her hometown. And, during the presentation of all the contestants who were participating to become ‘Miss Veracruz', Molina was the one that sparked the most interest in the audience. 

Ana Gabriela Molina. Photo: Gabriel Molina

Ana, who was born with a diagnosis of bilateral amelia (absence of upper limbs), is spreading the message that no obstacle is too big when you're prepared to work hard for what you want. Ever since she was a little girl, Gabriela dreamed of participating in a beauty pageant,

"I always told my family, one day, they'd see me, modeling or competing." She says.

At that time, her family dismissed her dreams and Ana completely understands their point of view.

"No one could ever imagine a person with a disability participating in a platform like that."

But, Ana hopes that her participation in the competition will show others that her disability has not stopped her from pursuing her dreams and that if she can accomplish her goals despite having no arms, then anyone can accomplish their own.

She graduated with a bachelor's degree in psychology and is a motivational speaker, hosting conferences on personal development. She says that completing her degree was key in helping her gain the strength of mind and confidence to participate in a beauty pageant.

"No dreamer is too small and no dream is too big!" she wrote in a recent Facebook post.

11.   Robin Towle

Against all odds, at the age of 50, Robin Towle won one of the most prestigious crowns in the entire world, and became Mrs. International 2019. Clearly, this woman is very impressive, but she doesn't see it that way. She's just trying to make a difference in the lives of others.

 One of the quotes that Robin Towle uses a lot and obviously lives by is, "Love without condition. Embrace without exclusion. Be an example without judgment. Serve without losing yourself. "

Mrs. International 2019 Robin Towle. Photo: Clay Spann

In 2018, Robin Towle won the Mrs. Utah America crown and competed with distinction at the national pageant, placing in the Top 10. Then, in July of 2019, she was thrilled to achieve her dream and was crowned Mrs. International 2019. This was the perfect opportunity to share her platform for suicide prevention internationally. Since that time she has been touring internationally, visiting eight countries so far during her reign, as well as sharing her platform of suicide prevention with political leaders throughout the United States. 

Robin is the founder of Wolf Pact; A nonprofit organization that teaches emotional life skills to teens. Robin is a crusader against negative talk (toward yourself and others) and she believes that it is imperative to teach people the specific skills we need in order to become more resilient and happy in the hopes of reducing anxiety, depression and suicide. Her platform and nonprofit was born out of her own struggle with depression and out of her mission for suicide prevention. She is compelled to ultimately help teens, adults and seniors live happier healthier lives. She has written and produced "Room Enough," a short film for her platform and is also the founder of Hope on the Hill, a suicide prevention event for veterans.

Robin is also an ambassador for NAMI Utah, Safe UT and an active member of the State Suicide Coalition.

Robin has had a successful career in the entertainment world her entire life, and is a dancer, actor, director and writer. You can find her credits on IMBD including her leading role as Dora from Lost at Desert. You can view "Room Enough" on her website at RobinTowle.com.

Robin has a Bachelor's Degree in economics with a minor in dance from East Carolina University. While in college she was an ECU cheerleader and Pure Gold Dancer.

She is the mother of six beautiful children and considers this to be her greatest accomplishment. She has home schooled her children for 16 years and together they toured all 48 continental United States together in an RV! This year Robin and her husband Kevin celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary.

Robin also won three Pageant Planet Best in Pageantry Awards this year, making it onto the "Top Ten" Lists for Best Evening Gown, Hairstyle and Fitness. The fact that Robin is 50 years old, and in sensational physical shape makes her achievements all the more inspiring!

12.  Zozibini Tunzi 

Zozibini Tunzi made history wearing her short, natural hair and becoming the first Miss Universe to do so. Zozibini, with her intelligent, eloquent and confidently poised manner became an instant inspiration among people around the entire world.

"I want to reassure people that this hair is as beautiful as any other hair," she said upon arrival in South Africa after she was crowned. "I want people to stop asking me 'why do you choose to have your hair', because it's my hair. it's normal."

Miss Universe 2020 Zozibini Tunzi. Photo: Seven Two Photography

When she was crowned Miss Universe, she vowed she wanted to help change beauty norms and hopes her win will inspire other young girls to pursue their dreams. 

"I did not know I would be Miss Universe because I did not know it was possible for someone like me. But now I confidently know that when you ask a young girl who looks like me do they know if they can become Miss Universe? I know they can say that they can."

Zozibini has also vowed to wage a campaign to fight violence against women, especially the scourge in South Africa where one female is killed every three hours and each day 137 sexual offenses are committed. Prior to the Miss Universe competition, she asked South African men to write messages of love to women to be inscribed onto ribbons of fabric that were going to be used on her costume at the pageant. For the national costume contest she wore a skirt with 2,000 of those messages sewn onto ribbons in South African flag colors.

So many things about Zozibini stood out immediately during her performance at the international pageant, such as her dedication to embracing the beauty of her skin and hair, things she told the crowd in her closing statement were never considered beautiful when she was growing up.

"I think as a black woman, we have a lot of colorism going on around us, and we have a lot of racism as well," she told People Magazine. "Growing up, we're living in a society where you open a magazine and you don't see any people who look like you on television or even in corporate spaces. . . But now we are slowly moving into a world that is more inclusive and shows so much more representation."

Part of her platform, she says, is being a leading force in that movement, and using her title to transform the way young girls see themselves in the mirror.

"When those girls look at me, I want them to see it, and I want them to feel it because I know a lot of people didn't get that opportunity growing up and I want them to live in a different world where everyone matters, where everyone is smart, where everyone is beautiful, where everyone is capable," she says.

We're thrilled to say that from the moment that Zozibini Tunzi became Miss Universe, it was clear that it was now a different world!

13.  Halima Aden

Halima Aden is making history. In 2016, she was the first contestant to take the stage wearing a hijab and burkini in the Miss Minnesota USA pageant, where she was a semi-finalist.

"This pageant is so much more than just beauty," Halima told Minnesota's local MPR News. "Their whole message is being confidently beautiful, so I didn't think that I should allow my hijab to get into the way of me participating. This is a great platform to show the world who I am... just because I've never seen a woman wearing a burkini in a pageant it doesn't mean that I don't have to be the first."

Halima Aden. Photo: Sports Illustrated

Following her participation in the pageant, Halima received national attention and was signed to IMG Models. In 2017, she then became the first model to wear a hijab on a major international runway when she walked in Yeezy Season 5 and Alberta Ferretti in Milan, and posed for the cover of CR Fashion Book. . . all while wearing a hijab. 

Then she added another history-making moment to her list, becoming the first model to wear a full-body swimsuit burkini and hijab on the cover of the Sport Illustrated annual swimsuit issue! The cover shoot for the issue, which is known for its bikini-clad models, features Halima in a bright blue full-body swimsuit on Watamu Beach in Kenya. She actually returned to her birth country for the groundbreaking shoot.

Sharing the story on her Instagram account, Halima said, "Being in Sports Illustrated is so much bigger than me. It's sending a message to my community and the world that women of all different backgrounds, looks, upbringings... can stand together and be celebrated."

She also shared her feelings about the shoot in the Sports Illustrated issue.

 "I keep thinking back to six-year-old me who, in this same country, was in a refugee camp. So to grow up to live the American dream and to come back to Kenya and shoot for SI in the most beautiful parts of Kenya. I don't think that's a story that anybody could make up."

Aden has been a pioneer for modest Muslim women in the fashion industry and has paved the way for other models like I-D's latest cover star Ugbad Abdi.

"Before Halima, I just assumed there was no place for the hijab in the fashion industry," Ugbad told I-D. "I have now realized that Muslim women can be anything we want to be."

Halima talks about all of the messages that she receives everyday from other women on her social media, and how she's glad that she is helping them to accept themselves.

 "I'm getting so many messages from Muslim girls and young women, just females in general, who are just telling me "thank you." I feel like a lot of people can relate to me because I'm different," she said. "It took me a while to just be comfortable in my own skin and really just wear my difference proudly, not be ashamed of the way I dress. I feel like that's something a lot of women experience. Just learning to have good self-esteem and accepting yourself for who you are and not trying to blend in with the standard of beauty."

14.  Cara Mund 

Cara Mund is a 2016 honors graduate in business, entrepreneurship and organizations from Brown University.

On September 10, 2017, Cara made history by becoming the first woman from the state of North Dakota to be awarded the title of Miss America. In her role as Miss America, Cara embarked on a yearlong national speaking tour where she traveled an average of 20,000 miles a month and changed location nearly every 36 to 48 hours. She advocated the importance of empowering women, education and community service. She served as the National Goodwill Ambassador for Children's Miracle Network Hospitals as well as promoted her own personal platform, the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Cara Mund. Photo: Matt Boyd Photography

But, at some point it all began to fall apart. . .

Mund said her year-long reign, which she had been working toward since she was a girl in North Dakota and later as a student at Brown University who wrote a dissertation on the pageant, had been "devastating." In a letter sent to her "Miss America Sisters," Cara said she's been "silenced," belittled and bullied by the then CEO of the organization, Gretchen Carlson, and that she has been researching "workplace bullying" as defined by the State of New Jersey.

"Ultimately, this is my year in a nutshell," she wrote after quoting the description of workplace bullying, which included "deliberate insults, threats, demeaning comments, constant criticism. . . and blatant ostracism." Cara detailed the bullying she allegedly endured at the hands of Miss America Organization, including hurtful comments about her appearance and an intent to have her "silenced."

Aside from Hopper's alleged insults, which, as Cara says, "took a toll" on her emotional well-being, she says that Carlson barred her from participating in high-profile appearances that past titleholders have historically been a part of and under Carlson's leadership, Cara says her contributions as Miss America have been minimal at best. 

"If you want Miss America to be relevant, then the leadership needs to understand she is not a wind-up toy who they can power up to spit out the meaningless words that are put into her mouth, and then put back on the shelf until it's time to do it again," Cara wrote in her letter.

"I don't want to leave this mess for the next Miss America," she wrote. "This letter is for her. I don't want her to have to live in constant fear, expecting to be degraded and punished while she should be having an amazing experience."

As a firm believer that our lives are defined by the legacy we leave, Cara intended to leave a Miss America legacy focused around inspiring others to accomplish their own "firsts."

Due to Cara's willingness to use her voice and stand up not only for herself but for all of the women that will follow her, Cara's year as Miss America turned out to be much more than that.

Cara Mund will always be remembered as the queen who had one of the most incredibly painful and disappointing reigns, yet through it all she behaved as a true queen should. She spoke her truth with grace and dignity, she did not allow the brutality of those around her corrupt her own spirit and she sought to protect the organization and the people in it, at all cost, even if it meant that she would have to sacrifice.

This is a post that Cara made on her Facebook page, and in it she quotes former Miss America Chairwoman Gretchen Carlson's line, "An Educated woman does not parade around in a swimsuit"....

""An Educated woman does not parade around in a swimsuit".... Female empowerment doesn't mean insulting, alienating and discrediting the thousands of women who paved the way. To those who have ever had the courage to pursue their dreams, overcome obstacles, or competed at the local, state or national level, you are STRONG. You are SMART. You are UNSTOPPABLE. As the last Miss America to ever compete in swimsuit, I am an Ivy League honors graduate, current law student, and proud supporter of ALL women."

Cara showed us, and continues to show us, the value in using your voice and speaking up for what you believe. 

15.  Lauren Scott Monahan

At 65, Lauren Monahan became the first woman to hold the title of Ms. Senior United States, and she has proven throughout her inspirational story that you get out of life AND pageantry, exactly what you put into it.

Lauren Monahan Photo Ms. Senior United States

Ironically, Lauren was crowned precisely 52 years after winning her very first pageant, on the exact same date! At age 13, Lauren became the Florida Junior Orange Bowl Queen in 1965, after entering the pageant in order to obtain scholarship money for college.

One of the many newspapers that covered her crowning called Lauren a "trail blazer," which is a total understatement, considering that this incredible woman has lived a life with an endless amount of trails.

For starters, Lauren Monahan has held a jaw dropping 20 state pageant or national titles from pageant organizations such as Miss America, Galaxy, United States, United America, International, All American Beauties, Continental and All American Plus to name just a few. She has held an additional seven state or national titles as a "senior citizen."

She was in the top five at Miss Florida, along with actress Delta Burke, was judged by Frank Sinatra, Mickey Rooney and Tony Randall, and has been featured in Pageantry Magazine a staggering amount of times.

In addition to being the Orange Bowl Queen, she was a member of the Orange Bowl committee for many years and ran the Queen's pageant, One year she got to be on a float in the Orange Bowl Parade with KC and the Sunshine Band, and another year she shared a float ride with the original, "Burger King."

"The titles I have received have allowed me to gain access to circles of life that are very important to me," Lauren said. "My number one concern is with the senior citizens of the world and their issues. I was the Director of the Frank Strang Senior Center in Knoxville, Tennessee for 20 years which boasts over 5,000 members, and I saw their problems and their needs firsthand. Because of my title and being able to be in front of the state legislature, I got to speak about what I thought were important topics regarding the senior's health and welfare.  I was awarded the prestigious Governor's Proclamation and Honor because of my work in Tennessee and I was named to the governor's Council on senior citizens welfare."

Lauren says that she is "definitely not a cookie-cutter Barbie doll" and the fact that she is atypical, is one of the main reasons that she competes in pageants. She says, "If the judges don't like me as I am, it's okay. I refuse to betray myself!"

Lauren says that this quality is what she has come to appreciate more about competing with the "older set."

"Those seniors do not care what you think of them. They are very strong, very bright, very accomplished and oh-so very talented women on their own. My mind was blown competing at my last National Pageant in Atlantic City because they were ALL retired doctors, lawyers, ambassadors, opera stars or Las Vegas entertainers."

Lauren's story should make anyone come away with the assurance that not only are women relevant, vibrant and have something to offer at any age, but that we can celebrate ourselves and be glamorous on a pageant stage, without the fear of someone telling us to settle down, sit still and behave "appropriately." 

At age 66, Lauren threw her hat in the ring again and entered the Ms Senior America pageant, representing the US Virgin Islands. She made the Top 5! She said, "To be in the top five of that pool of women was an accomplishment that even surpassed my Miss America days!"  

You GO Girl!

Challenge the Stereotypes, Be You

These women are outstanding, not because they have a disability or are outside the norm of what others might consider the traditional "pageant type." They are exceptional because they chose to not buy into self-limiting beliefs about what they were capable of achieving and what they were deserving of in life.

Every woman on this list could have pointed to that set of circumstances, or that thing, or quality that proved that they weren't the "pageant type" and succumbed to a life of settling, sitting on the side lines, like so many of us do. But, they had the courage to risk, and to rise above their situation and take a chance on themselves.

They were probably told many times that it would be best to just play it safe, and not bring attention to themselves or their particular circumstances. And, maybe out of fear or self preservation, they even told themselves the same thing. But, these women did not play it safe. They did do something potentially terrifying, and they certainly undertook an action that brought a considerable amount of attention to themselves. And, that is exactly what makes them admirable, awe-inspiring and breathtakingly beautiful, to us!  

They are exactly what pageantry is all about! So to all the pageant girls out there, take chances. Go for the crown, start the nonprofit, be a scientist, be a leader. Do what others say you can't. Be authentic to yourself. Shatter those stereotypes of what a "pageant girl" is or does or says, because we all know that women who compete in pageants go on to shape and change the world in impeccable and unimaginable ways. 


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