When pageant contestant Kataluna Enriquez won Miss Nevada in July, catapulting her off to compete in the Miss USA contest as the first transgender woman to do so, she was thrilled to be a symbol of hope for not one but two underrepresented communities.
"I'm a trans woman of color, a minority within a minority," Enriquez, who is Filipino, told Yahoo Life at the time. "I"m everything that's not represented in our country, and [ready] to create conversations around what it means to be an American."
On Monday, though, her chance to do that was cut short when she failed to advance past closed-door interviews to join one of the Top 16 Miss USA finalists at the big event in Tulsa, Okla. It concluded with Miss Kentucky Elle Smith winning the crown, and going on to compete in Miss Universe, set to take place on Dec. 12 in Eilat, Israel.
But, said Enriquez, 28, who spoke to Yahoo Life by phone on Tuesday, "It was an honor just to be able to represent my community and be an example for young queer children who now know they don't need to be limited by society's standards."
As for not placing in the competition, "I was shocked. But I was more disappointed because I worked so hard for it," she said. "I think they were just not ready."
While others in the competition, said Enriquez, were asked to share their thoughts on a range of topics during the closed-door interview portion of the contest, "my interview was solely on my transitioning," she said. "It was disappointing to me because I had so much more to offer, I had so much I wanted to talk about… Others were asked about politics, climate change, so it was highly disappointing for me because I expected more."
A representative from Miss USA has not yet responded to Yahoo Life's request for comment on the specifics of Enriquez's interview.
But Enriquez was quick to add, "It's OK because we made an impact… and I received a lot of support and love on social media."
It was a relief, said the contestant, as she had been trolled and threatened online before heading to Oklahoma from Nevada.
"Going into the competition, I was receiving threats, saying I need to prepare myself, that I was going to a red state, that they were going to protest, so I was very cautious — and every time I heard a 'bang' I was on high alert, and sometimes it would freak me out," Enriquez said of her time at the competition. She wound up not seeing any protesters. She credited Miss USA's high security for keeping her safe and noted she felt nothing but kindness from her competitors.
"I was really honored meeting the other contestants," she said. "Going in there, I had a lot of fears, because our country is so divided at the moment and I didn’t know how people would receive me. But as soon as we [had] more time together I think they learned to understand who I am as a person and woman, and we got to bond, and they realized I'm more than just a trans person."
"Elle was so sweet, I'm happy that she won," she said of Smith. "She was an amazing competitor onstage and backstage, as well. Her family was so sweet to me, so welcoming to me."
But, she said, "everyone had something to offer," and something powerful to share — from an Air Force veteran who spoke publicly about suffering from PTSD to another who had been homeless as a teen after leaving an abusive home. That sort of diversity — including Enriquez, as well as the first Afghan competitor to represent Connecticut, and the fact that Smith is a Black woman and a local news reporter — was part of the pageant's theme of "Pageantry Reimagined," and got it dubbed the "wokest" ever in some of its media coverage.
Enriquez, though, said it was just a start. "I think they tried to portray it [as woke], but there's obviously a lot more to go," she said. "We can't talk about inclusivity and empowerment without including every single woman — every size and every color — not just trans."
She still appreciated being able to bond on a "deeper level" with the contestants and said, beyond that, "my favorite part was the costumes and the gowns, so I could see everyone through a creative lens."
It's not surprising that the budding fashion designer would be intrigued by everyone's style, as her own gown — a reimagining of the Pride-themed gown she wore for the Miss Nevada contest, representing over 100 hours of work and containing over 10,000 glittery stones — was her personal pièce de résistance.
"That dress was representation in so many ways," she said. "It was sending a message. I don't know how everyone received it, but I know so many people felt seen and felt heard [through it] — they felt visible, and that was one of my most important jobs going in there."
Now, even as Enriquez closes the door on pageantry and sets her sights on the fashion and entertainment industries ("something like Dancing With the Stars…"), she is determined to keep up that job of lifting up others — all others.
"People think because I'm just trans, my message is only trans or LGBTQ. But I advocate for true equality, which means everyone being given the chance to survive and live in a way in which they don’t have to compromise themselves and can be free to express themselves,” she said.
And at her short but history-making time with Miss USA, she added, "I think I achieved that."
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