Victoria Graham from Frostburg, Maryland, is not your ordinary beauty queen. Since the age of 10 years old, Victoria Graham has always known she was different.
When beginning the sport of gymnastics, she was told that she was “too flexible.” After sparing various unusual injuries while participating in the sport, Graham decided to see a specialist. After various rounds of doctor visits and one geneticist who defined her illness, Graham was diagnosed with a rare inherited condition called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS). What is EDS? EDS is a rare disease that causes the connective tissues of the body to act like glue to support the skin, tendons, ligaments, internal organs and bones. In Graham’s condition, her EDS is at a high severity, causing cranial and spinal instability. Due to Graham’s EDS, she is left with dietary restrictions, fluctuating heartbeat that needs to be monitored, and scars that lead from the top of her spine to the bottom of her back.
Graham, at 22 years old, has won one beauty title and her battle with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. EDS affects the connective tissues responsible for body support and the structure of organs and blood vessels in the body. She is fighting her way through this rare condition of repetitive cuts and stitches and is already a winner of courage and living life to its fullest.
However, courage does not erase pain and fear for Miss Frostburg. To keep everything running smoothly, Graham has to maintain a steady heartbeat by wearing a watch at all times to monitor her pulse to ensure she does not increase at a dangerous rate, causing her to faint. To ease the constant back pain, Graham has to take between 20-25 tablets every two hours. "I know plenty of girls who are in a near similar situation as me medically who are bed-bound, but I believe lifestyle has a lot to do with your attitude and how you view your situation," Graham said. Through the pain, determination to do good in the world and the Miss America Organization, Graham hopes to continue to advocate what it means to live with a life-threatening illness that goes unidentified to the average person.
"It's not always easy, sometimes you want to be normal - you don't want to be that girl with those scars on stage," Graham said.
The standard pageant judges a candidate's confidence and grace while wearing a swimsuit. This was not something easy for a contestant who has a 25-inch scar on the back of her spine that everyone can see. As a beauty queen, she wears beautiful makeup and a tiara but after the show, her "invisible illness" lays bare as she unzips out of each fancy dress.
In an interview with BBC, Graham shared that she’s had 10 brain operations and spinal surgeries just to support her body standing straight. She posted an Instagram photo last year publicizing her condition to the world and showing the overwhelming pain behind her smiles.
Graham told Babble in a separate interview that she did not join the pageant to get attention. She joined to teach everyone that this type of illness exists. It is difficult to go through but at the same time, it can be conquered. Her goal is to prove to everyone that anything is possible.
This courageous pageant winner founded The Zebra Network. It is an organization that aims to raise awareness on this rare condition, educate people about EDS and support the ones who are suffering from this ailment. Through TZN advocacy, she hopes to make a difference for EDS patients.
Graham is not the first to bravely join a beauty contest with an underlying illness. We’ve had Bell’s palsy beauty finalist Olivia Raffaele from Miss Galaxy Australia and the inspiring walk of Miss Ana Halozan at the Miss Universe 2015 suffering from the same condition. All of them are incredible women who serve as an inspiration of courage to everyone.
Updated: April 9, 2018
Despite the discrimination of Graham’s invisible illness, she defies the odds by expressing what life is like through monologue as her talent, leading her to new limits. With the recent win of Miss Allegany County 2018, a local preliminary to the Miss Maryland Scholarship Competition, Graham continues to express the importance of living life with an invisible illness through her platform “But You Don’t Look Sick’ - Making Invisible Illnesses Visible.”
Marking her 23 birthday, Graham has now been three years free of a hospital visit. “I do it to show them, you can be in that bed, but you can wear a crown too,” Graham said. “Those two don’t have to be separated, you can combine them into one fantastic package.”