Newly crowned Miss Nevada Kataluna Enriquez — who broke barriers this week when she became the first transgender woman to be heading to Miss USA — radiates pure confidence. It's especially on display in an Instagram photo she shared before being crowned on Monday, posing in a glittery rainbow gown she designed herself, with the caption, "In honor of pride month, and all those who don’t get a chance to spread their colors."
But, as Enriquez tells Yahoo Life, her early existence, and her path to this moment, was the "very opposite" of the pride and glamour she exudes today.
"I didn't grow up with my parents," Enriquez, 28, says, explaining that her young mom and dad left her and her two sisters in the Philippines with family friends while they fled the country to find work. Eventually, they were sent for, and Enriquez was 10 years old when she arrived in California (later moving to Nevada) to be raised by her dad and other family members. "We lived with my aunts and uncles in a three-bedroom with 16 people," she recalls. "So, for a long time, I didn’t have my own bed… I remember I had one pair of shoes for three years."
Additionally, Enriquez knew she was not like the other kids at school. "I knew that I was different, but I didn’t know the word, just that I was feminine, since I was really young. I used to steal my sisters’ toys," she says. Eventually figuring out that she was transgender, she started transitioning "socially" at the age of 14, and "medically," right after high school. And while her sisters supported her, her father didn't know what to make of his child (though he's "amazing" now, she says, as is her mother).
Enriquez says she found comfort in pageantry. "When I first started watching, I thought it was very superficial — but then one of the contestants, her story resonated with me," she says, remembering a past Miss Philippines, Venus Raj. "She didn’t have much growing up, she was training in rice fields and her family didn’t have much food, they were eating bugs… I learned to look at the story of the woman beyond their beautiful face, to see that what they had to go through is very, very beautiful. And I wanted to expand the definition of beauty, to show that it's not just superficial."
So, she began preparing for, and then entered, the Miss Silver State competition, the preliminary contest for Miss Nevada (directed by former Miss New York Shanna Moakler), which she won, making history as the first transgender woman to do so in March. The contest is part of the Miss Universe system, which, thanks to 2012 transgender Miss Canada contestant Jenna Talackova fighting for her right to compete, changed its rules to allow transgender women to enter; as a result, Angela Ponce became Miss Spain in 2018, competing in Miss Universe. (The separate Miss America Organization also welcomes transgender and non-binary candidates, according to one of its first non-binary contestants, Miss Greater Rockville Leah Juliett. Yahoo Life has reached out to Miss America for comment.)
Taking inspiration from both Talackova and Ponce, Enriquez set her sights on Miss USA. "She wanted to start at the bottom and climb the ladder," Miss Silver State founder and director Marissa Castillo tells Yahoo Life, noting that some contestants opt to enter right at the state level by raising a sponsorship fee.
"I wanted to compete in the very, very start so I could learn from other people, learn from my director and have a team," explains Enriquez (who has also competed in the transgender Miss International Queen Pageant). She credits Castillo, who was also her coach, for being her rock throughout the competition process. "She's more than just my director, she became my support system, she was like a mother to me — beyond the pageant industry, but really pushing me to embrace myself." She helped her work through her fears of rejection, too, though Enriquez quickly found the other women in the pageant scene to be "very, very accepting, and I really appreciate that."
Castillo confirms that support for Enriquez, both among contestants and in the audiences, was powerful, and that watching her shine onstage at the Miss Nevada contest was an incredible moment.
"I can't even put into words what the energy and the support was like… I don't think I've ever been to a pageant on that level," Castillo says. "I've been to Miss USA, Miss Universe… but this was on another level — the screaming, the yelling, the support… people who didn't even know her were in awe of her energy… Plus there were RuPaul's Drag Race queens [Coco Montrese and Alexis Mateo] who came for her, and the Filipino community was there for her."
Notes Enriquez, "It felt amazing, because oftentimes in the LGBTQ community, we are divided, and trans people, in general, are often the last to receive any recognition or better treatment or rights… we are way behind. Them being there was an honor." Representing Filipinos, as well, made her doubly proud. "I'm a trans woman of color, a minority within a minority — I’m everything that's not represented in our country and [ready] to create conversations around what it means to be an American, especially since Asian-Americans are underrepresented as Americans… and with the rise in Asian hate."
That supportive energy in the Miss Nevada audience only increased when those who hadn't already known learned that Enriquez was transgender.
"There's a script from their bio that they submit, blurbs about their passions, that's read aloud during the swimsuit and evening gown portion… and it was mentioned in there that [Enriquez's] goal is to be the first transgender woman to compete at Miss USA," Castillo explains. "They were like, 'You're joking.'"
But while Enriquez knows she can pass as cisgender — "People don’t know I'm trans if I don't tell them…" — she says did not want to.
"People have a misconception of what is trans — they think we change gender in one day. But transitioning was not a one-day process. It took me years of being comfortable with myself, of loving my body," she says. "I wanted to put myself out there so people can learn and see what trans is… Not everyone knows someone who is trans, so if I could just be that example… that was my purpose."
As for naysayers who insist that transgender women are not women, Enriquez has a message: "For me, my experiences in life have always been as a woman or girl… I tried to live as a man or a boy, but it almost killed me: Every moment was fighting the real me."
That led to mental health struggles, as did being "consistently objectified" and a "survivor of sexual abuse," she says, recalling that, in one ongoing situation, an employer insisted she sit on his lap and let him touch her at will. "If I refused, he would not pay me," she says. "It happened for four years, and I didn't have the strength to say no… I needed to survive and pay my rent, I needed to live. And a lot of women, specifically women of color, face the same experiences."
The abuse, combined with her past struggle of not feeling free to express her true gender, had consequences that still reverberate today.
"I was so tired of trying to please everyone around me — trying to be masculine, trying to be something I'm not… It was just never working. I was never happy, or someone else was never happy," she says. "I wanted to die because of it. I wanted to sleep and just never wake up, and had many thoughts of wanting to end my life … Even now I still struggle with it from time to time, though I've been in therapy since high school, and every moment of it is amazing for me, because I get to expand my knowledge and heal."
Enriquez doesn’t shy away from speaking out about her struggles and has in fact made mental health her platform for Miss USA — #BeVisible. "It's about being vulnerable and being visible… People use our vulnerability to shame us, but it's our power," she says, adding that being so open reminds people "that they can relate and that we’re not perfect." Today she looks towards others who are out there for inspiration — including Demi Lovato and "how authentic they are and how they speak, advocating for mental health, using their words to fight for certain causes and being unapologetic."
Now Enriquez is heading to Miss USA in November — and, if she wins, will advance to compete at Miss Universe. In the meantime, she's focusing on her Kataluna Kouture fashion line. "I started it because I couldn't afford gowns or find anything or that could fit me… and I realized many others in pageants had [the same issues], as it's super expensive and it's a one-night event…" she says. "I'd love to keep dressing other people in the future… on red carpets — and hopefully, someday, at the Met Gala."
If you or someone you know are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 911, or call the Trevor Project at 866-488-7386, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
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