It’s not enough that Rachel Slawson is the first openly bisexual Miss USA contestant: She wants others to live in their truth too. That’s why she’s committed to being vocal about her identity — not only as a “queer woman,” but also as someone living with bipolar disorder.
Although Slawson, 25, didn’t take home the Miss USA crown on Nov. 9 — that was a title claimed by Asya Branch, a University of Mississippi student and the first Black women to represent her state — the Miss Utah contestant is still making an impact.
“I think when I first started doing pageants, I really tried to fit that cookie-cutter mold of just really trying to present this perfect image, and it didn’t really work. If anything, it made me mentally unwell,” Slawson told Justin Sylvester during Wednesday’s episode of E!’s Just the Sip podcast. “So, why I returned to pageantry was to add that breath of fresh air and actually be an authentic human.”
Slawson, of Park City, was named Miss Utah in January, after five runs.
“The last time I tried to end my life I was 19 years old, and it was the night I lost Miss Utah USA. ‘Why wasn’t I enough?’” she wrote on Instagram after landing the title. “After a few trips to the psych ward, being diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder (the reason I had such an extreme reaction to losing a pageant) and finally coming to terms with who I am as a queer woman. And the only difference between tonight, and the night I left broken hearted wishing I wasn’t alive, is that I knew I was enough before I arrived.”
Coming out was a somewhat delayed decision, she told Teen Vogue, due to the restraints of pageant culture. “You don’t see a lot of representation in terms of sexuality,” she said. “You also don’t see a lot of representation in something else I’m passionate about: mental health. When you don’t see that kind of representation … it has an inadvertent effect. You think there are pieces of yourself that are OK to share, and pieces you need to hide to be accepted.”
The Miss USA pageant was launched in 1952 by swimsuit maker Catalina, after Yolande Betbeze, the winner of the 1950 Miss America contest, rejected a contract that required her to pose in such a swimsuit, thus prompting Catalina to go and start its own pageant in response.
It’s lasted for decades now, and endured some recent controversy: In 2018, Miss USA Sarah Rose Summers was accused of making “xenophobic and ignorant” comments about her fellow contestants. Branch got backlash for her singing performance at a Mississippi rally for President Trump — who happens to be the former owner of the Miss Universe Organization (which includes Miss USA), and who was connected to other controversies related to the pageant, including the infamous one regarding Alicia Machado.
To Slawson, no topic is taboo, including her experience of homelessness and thoughts of suicide, along with her bipolar disorder diagnosis. “I was diagnosed multiple times before I finally accepted the diagnosis,” Slawson told E!, describing the initial news — about having a mental disorder marked by extreme up-and-down mood swings of mania and depression — as “very scary.”
Slawson was a 23-year-old flight attendant when she had her first manic episode. “It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced,” she told E!, adding, “I lost touch with reality for three or four days, but in those three or four days, 20 years happened. Time was completely distorted.”
She entered unspecified treatment, and has not had another episode since. “There’s sort of this death sentence that happens with bipolar disorder, but if you actually receive treatment, especially at a younger age, there’s a lot of potential for your brain to heal,” she said.
Contributing to her growth was a realization: “I once heard this quote that enlightenment is not found on the mountaintop,” she told Sylvester. “Just like enlightenment was not found when I won Miss Utah USA — I remember when that crown was put on my head. I was almost more depressed in that moment than I had been at other points in that year because you think that winning will fill all these holes in your heart. But you realize, no, it was just a plastic hat that was put on your head and now you still have to deal with yourself.”
Slawson also shared that despite her “privileged” upbringing, she wound up experiencing homelessness as an adult, due to a lack of family support and her mother’s own mental health challenges.
Now she’s coming clean about all of it, and that includes her being openly bisexual after years of denial. “I grew up in a really conservative community where, as a little kid, I was told that being queer was, like, a sin second to murder,” she said.
And representation matters, even when it’s not perceived in a positive light. “I was the first woman to ever wear pants on the stage of Miss USA in 69 years,” she said. “And I think that challenged a lot of people’s ideas of gender expression, and I don’t think everyone liked it.”
Although she didn’t win Miss USA, Slawson, the founder of the I Am Why Project, “a stigma free self-care community” on Instagram, is not discouraged. “I’m not afraid to be ambitious and I’m not afraid to go for the biggest life possible — I don’t know why anyone would want to play small,” she said. “We should all chase all of our dreams and meet each other at the psych ward at the top, if we have to.”
And she might make room for company: According to a Wednesday Instagram video, Slawson is ready for “reciprocated love.”
“I really would like to be the first bisexual Bachelorette,” she said. “I could maybe find love and break stereotypes at the same time.”
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is open 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255.
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