What started as a swimsuit competition to draw tourists to Atlantic City in the 1920s became a cultural cornerstone: what we now know as beauty pageants. As they have evolved, these events offer a glittering spectacle featuring statuesque women and replete with extravagant gowns, talent shows, questionnaires, physical fitness tests, judges, and, of course, a tiara for the last contestant standing. Michael Caine’s character in Miss Congeniality sums up the pageant microcosm when he says, “Smilers wear a crown; losers wear a frown.”
For years, debates have arisen on whether these competitions primarily offer a means to empower women (through prizes like academic scholarships) or to exclude them (by celebrating certain body types at the expense of others). Although major national beauty pageants don’t have strict size requirements for competitors, it's still rare to see plus-size women represented in the pageant universe and in popular culture at large. Miss Plus America has decided to change that.
As an independent organization unaffiliated with Miss America (the grandmother of pageants) and the first of its kind, Miss Plus America was created to make space for plus-size pageantry. It gives women whose body types don’t conform to certain received standards of beauty the chance to experience not only the glitz and glam of walking a stage in a gown and a crown, but also the opportunity to serve their communities.
This weekend, the national competition of the Miss Plus America pageant takes place on July 2 at the Omni Hotel in Houston. Among the contestants to watch are three women representing the Bayou City, who won the Texas Plus America crowns back in March: Nikki Levario-Canchola, Shaniaya Griffin, and Michelle Saxton.
According to Levario-Canchola, women don’t have to conform to popular body standards to be the best versions of themselves. “I’ve always been, I would say, ‘the chubbier girl,’” Levario-Canchola tells Houstonia. “It’s never been something that’s changed, and as I was growing up, a lot of my confidence around who I was, was because I had to be my biggest advocate. Because our media didn’t portray that.”
Levario-Canchola thinks plus-size pageantry belongs at the forefront of society, in order to show the world what women in these spaces can do and are capable of while maintaining their authentic selves. “Every woman has the right to take up space wherever she sees fit, and giving them the tools and support to do so is my passion,” she says.
Compared with other well-known pageants, Miss Plus America has a different process for participants. Rather than strongly judging contestants on their physical presence on stage through first impressions, costumes, and choreography, the Plus pageant engages contestants in rigorous interviews, giving them the opportunity to showcase who they are beyond the walls of the competition.
“A lot of people can think it’s all about glitz and glamour, which it is, but it’s also taking it as your own and really doing what you want with it to make your heart full,” Levario-Canchola says. “Signing up to do the pageant has given me more of a purpose, and that purpose has been to empower women.”
Like the other Houston candidates, Griffin believes that plus-size pageantry belongs with other mainstream pageants. Since the pageant is meant to highlight nonconforming body types, she says the competition is a big step toward affirming body diversity and providing positive representation.
“It allows so many beautiful women to flaunt their beauty, and that should not be limited to a particular audience when regular pageantry is broadcast nationally,” she says.
Griffin’s platform, a mission she calls “the greater good,” shines a light on inclusivity for all. She works in Houston as a special education teacher’s assistant and strives to empower students and teachers of different abilities in low socioeconomic demographics.
For Saxton’s part, she says she lives by the words, “Let’s heal together; let’s turn our pain into gain!” As a best-selling author on Amazon with a focus on mental health and well-being, she has a mission of helping people through their depression and has been a strong advocate for people getting professional help without shame.
Saxton says she never considered participating in a pageant, but her daughter signed her up. “Because I am plus-size and never lacked self-confidence, I remind women of all sizes that even if there’s something you don’t like about yourself, enhance the parts that you do and make that work for you,” she says.
The key difference between other pageants and Miss Plus America, according to Saxton, is the real sisterhood it creates.
“My hope being in the pageant is to collaborate with other strong women and even perhaps women that still lack in areas of self-confidence—and to teach my daughter that no matter the age, if you stick to it, you can accomplish it,” Saxton says. “Plus-size women are here to stay.”
While Levario-Canchola, Griffin, and Saxton await Miss Plus America this weekend, they’re preparing for the big day by campaigning across Houston using social media, volunteering, hosting seminars and brunches with guest speakers, and discussing their platform. The way they see it, all women are deserving of crowns—and there’s no need for frowns.
The Miss Plus America Pageant will be held on Saturday, July 2, at the Omni Hotel Galleria. For more information, visit their website.