Having produced three Miss Universe winners and a handful of other international beauty queens, the Philippines takes its beauty pageants very seriously.
Amid the numerous pageants regularly staged in the country, there’s one that stands out: Miss Possibilities’ contestants are young women with special needs.
Touted as the only beauty pageant of its kind in Asia, the annual event features participants ages 12 and above, who have medical conditions such as Down syndrome, autism, or cerebral palsy.
The event is the brainchild of Suzanna Pavadee Vicheinrut Yuzon, a Thai who is married to a Filipino.
The 42-year-old mother of two was inspired to set up Miss Possibilities because she herself has an eldest daughter with special needs: Five-year-old Johanna has Down syndrome.
Yuzon had just moved to the Philippines when her daughter was born with the condition.
“Dealing with the initial diagnosis, your world becomes devastated. But I knew some good had to come out of that. I wanted to use her life as an inspiration,” shared Yuzon, who was recently in town for Facebook’s first Asia-Pacific Facebook Community event.
SOMETHING SMALL FOR THE GIRLS
Incidentally, the United States-born Yuzon was a beauty pageant queen, holding titles such as Miss Thailand USA, Miss Thailand in the 1995 and Mrs World in 2003. Her past experiences prompted her to use beauty pageants as a vehicle for her newfound project. She was also inspired when she saw a poster of Miss Unlimited, a similar event held in California.
The first edition in 2015 was a low-key event held in a friend’s restaurant, which featured 15 participants and an audience of around 500 people.
“I just wanted to do something small for the girls. But it turned out that it was a need that no one knew was there,” she recalled. Last year, there were 1,200 people who watched the pageant. The next edition will be held next month.
While Miss Possibilities’ participants aren’t your run-of-the-mill pageant folks, the event itself is typical of all beauty pageants.
“We have a talent portion, an interview portion, an evening gown portion just like real pageants. We also have pre-events such as photo and video shoots,” said Yuzon.
A PAGEANT ABOUT INNER BEAUTY
While beauty events such as this tend to be fiercely competitive, that’s not quite the case here, where everyone goes home with crowns and sashes for titles such as Miss Amazing, Miss Inspirational, Miss Fashionista, and of course, Miss Possibilities.
“As a mom of a girl with special needs, we want them to have all the life experiences of a typical person, which means wanting to win or dealing with not winning. But we never really make it into a real competition – we call them participants not contestants. We call our judges panelists,” she said.
“We just want all the girls to know that we’re celebrating them and it’s their time onstage. It’s a pageant to show the girls’ inner beauty.”
Yuzon said she decided to focus the pageant on girls from 12 and above because that’s when they start having self-esteem and self-confidence issues.
“And if you add ‘special needs’ to that equation, you’d see that they have less friends, they’re invited to less parties. Among people with special needs, there has been research that there are higher rates of depression among young adults. I wanted to build their self-confidence. If they don’t have a chance to go to a prom or a dance, this is where they can dress up,” she said.
It’s also an opportunity where the focus is completely on them.
“People with special needs, they’d go to their cousins’ or siblings’ graduations, sports competitions, plays, but they never really have the whole family come out and celebrate them, rooting and cheering them on,” added Yuzon.
ENDING THE STIGMA
Since last year, Miss Possibilities has also expanded to include a fashion show that was open to older men and women, as well as younger kids. Yuzon had also roped in local celebrities and sports personalities to walk with the participants, raising the profile of both the event and the cause.
And there’s still a lot of work to do on this front. Yuzon shared how some people would still refer to her daughter as “mongoloid”.
She recalled one encounter where a man was playing with Johanna. “He was making a little paper boat for her and he told me he knew she was ‘mongoloid’. It doesn’t come from a bad place but it’s about awareness – he just doesn’t know a better word,” she said.
And it sometimes extends to the parents, too, who would say things like their kids were “not normal” or “they bring us luck”.
“We’re trying to end those myths and misconceptions.”
BEYOND THE LIMELIGHT
And there’s more to Miss Possibilities than just pageantry for a good cause. Since last year, it has held 12 different community projects, which include missions that offer free dental, medical, and eye exams, hippotherapy – or therapy using horses – and even therapy for babies up to three years old.
It has also gone beyond their small community. “Before, we were just parents or siblings of kids with special needs. We were preaching to the choir, but we really wanted to raise awareness,” she said.
Some of Miss Possibilities’ former participants have also stepped up and come out of their shell.
Said Yuzon: “Some have come back to join us as volunteers. And some are now even joining competitions like singing contests, or working in customer service. They’ve really gained that confidence of having a voice.”