Pageants have a reputation of being a traditional bastion of who and what a woman should be — but a winner this year is breaking the mold. In January, Rachel Slawson was crowned Miss Utah USA. She is the first ever openly queer state titleholder for the Miss USA pageant. KUER’s Caroline Ballard caught up with her this Pride Month to talk about what the last few months have been like.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Ballard: On stage at Miss Utah USA you had something of a public coming out, where you spoke about being bipolar and bisexual on stage. What led to that moment?
Rachel Slawson: Those first few years competing, I always felt like my mental health diagnosis and my sexuality and all these pieces of myself that I was so ashamed of made me ugly and unworthy. I had this journey over a few years where I realized that actually these pieces of myself that I'm so ashamed of are what have given me the most of my inward beauty and what I really wanted to share with others. And so for me, it was important to do something a little bit different, which was highlighting the things that at one point made me feel unworthy of being Miss Utah as the very reasons why I would be a great Miss Utah.
CB: What was it like to stand up on that stage and know you were going to say that?
RS: It was terrifying, honestly. My heart was beating so fast. There was actually a moment where after prelims — knowing what was coming next — some audience members texted me and told me, “Rachel, we can see you shaking.” So I was really scared.
CB: And how did people react in that moment?
RS: It's kind of hard to tell when you're on stage. But what I really saw was that I was crowned. I took that as a reaction that this is a message that people actually really do need to hear and are ready to hear. There are so many queer people involved in pageantry that have never actually had a crown or a title or a microphone or a voice at all. I was honestly surprised that I was the first queer contestant ever. I figured it would be a first for my home state in Utah, but I actually didn't know until after I was crowned that I was the first ever. It does feel like it's a little bit late, but I'm just glad that it's happening at all.
CB: A contestant in 2017, Erin O’Flaherty, was the first openly gay person to compete at Miss America, which is different from Miss USA. How has your experience compared?
RS: You know, it's funny. Right after I was crowned, I actually did reach out to Erin just to have some camaraderie. And she was able to share a little bit about her experience and how, even though it was such a historic moment for her, she felt this pressure to be quiet about it still. In my world, my sexuality is a part of me. It's not all of me. So to have it be so highlighted is a little bit different than what I expected would happen when I finally would go to Miss USA. But her perspective was that it's something to really celebrate and keep talking about and shout it from the rooftops and just enjoy every minute, because it is history in the making and it's never happened before at Miss USA.
CB: You have a bit of an activist bent. Your Instagram has photos of you with signs at marches and you've been vocal about causes like Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ rights. How do you see activism and pageants complementing each other?
RS: I feel like that's the part about pageantry that's often so underrated — the access to the platform that you are given. I've always had my own social media and my own voice, but the moment that I was crowned that was amplified. I think that pageantry has never been more relevant, because it gives women the opportunity to be activists in their community with a giant microphone.
CB: After winning a state title, your year is usually filled with public events and preparation for Miss USA. That obviously looks a little different this year with many of those canceled and with Miss USA postponed. What is it like to be Miss Utah USA in 2020?
RS: Well, it has been a lot of crying in my pjs in bed. [laughing] Nothing really went to plan. But everything I've ever spoken about in terms of the importance of self care and mental health and reducing stigma around these things — I actually got to put that into practice. We all really needed to start responding to the trauma that was being experienced by everybody. So I ended up actually starting a self care workshop. I teach people daily practices and action oriented health care plans and do that in an online community now. That's nothing that I was ever planning on doing before I was crowned, but because of the need of COVID-19 and the ways that we were all stuck inside, my mental health started struggling. So once I got back on my own feet, I realized I have this opportunity to start really uplifting others and helping people.
CB: How are you celebrating Pride Month?
RS: Well, I'm going on a date with a girl, so that'll be fun. I actually really want to turn my own car into a little rainbow parade. Because of Black Lives Matter, that's been where most of my focus has been. I've been to a couple of parades, but they really are focused on Black Lives Matter. But in terms of myself, it's really just remembering that I do deserve intimacy and love and connection. I'm just getting to know people and dating. And that's how I'm celebrating, by just being a human.
Caroline Ballard hosts All Things Considered at KUER. Follow her on Twitter @cballardnews