A Pageantry of Confidence
Iowa Miss Amazing strives to empower girls with disabilities
By Bryon Houlgrave
URBANDALE, Iowa – Olivia Zahn smiles as her stylist gently pats her face with a rose-shaded makeup wedge.
“How’s it looking,” asks Zahn, a volunteer hair and makeup stylist from Louisville, Nebraska, who found herself on the receiving end of the makeup brush.
“Not yet,” says her young stylist, Zayah Jackson, 8, of Ames. Before Jackson finishes, she playfully traces the makeup wedge down Zahn’s neck, happy to draw a line of pink that closely matches her t-shirt. The procedure draws some laughter from fellow stylists, but Zahn doesn’t mind. The confident smile on Jackson’s face is worth it.
Confidence is what this weekend is all about. For people with disabilities, Zahn knows that the path to confidence is often lined with extra obstacles. That’s why she volunteered for the 11th annual Iowa Miss Amazing pageant.
“It means a lot to me, honestly, to be here and help,” Zahn said. “It just fills me with so much joy.”
Jackson was one of roughly 90 participants in the Iowa Miss Amazing pageant on Feb. 4-5, at the Urbandale High School auditorium. Miss Amazing is a national organization founded by former beauty pageant contestant Jordan Somer that promotes confidence-building activities and empowerment for girls and women with disabilities.
“Seeing these girls build up their confidence and grow into women that are making a difference just warms my heart,” said Iowa Miss Amazing co-director Morgan Tooley.
Iowa is one of 38 states that currently participates in the organization.
Iowa Miss Amazing co-director Laura Tooley feels many in the public at-large still tend to underestimate people with physical and intellectual disabilities.
“Our organization is about completely dispelling that stereotype and putting them up on a platform where they can define themselves and set goals for themselves and show everyone how special they are, because they truly are,” Laura Tooley said.
As the crowd began to fill the auditorium on Saturday afternoon, Jackson and her fellow participants (the organization is careful to avoid the word competitor) gathered backstage, brimming with nervous energy. They found support and encouragement in one another, hugging each other and empowering each other with positivity while backstage director Caitlin Mertz helped them get ready to step out in front of the audience to deliver their passion presentations.
“It takes a lot for them to perform in front of 200-300 people,” said Morgan Tooley. “But when they get up there they are incredible.”
One by one the girls stepped out onto the stage to a near-packed auditorium and made their presentations. In matching yellow dresses, Ashlyn Mayo and her teddy bear danced to a chorus of awws. Brenda Hummel Foreman of Polk City brought the crowd to tears when she lifted her daughter, Andrea Capaldo, out of her chair and danced to Rise Up, by Andra Day. Lynn Murphy shared a special dance on stage with her father.
Clad in black, Madison Williams brought the crowd out of their seats with her hard rock rendition of Bring Me to Life by Evanescence while the humor of comedian Katie Gray sat them back down in stitches.
Some girls sang, others danced. Some read poetry, others presented artwork. Each one showing how special and unique they are, showing what they offer a world that is oftentimes guilty of overlooking them.
Sisters Morgan and Laura Tooley took turns handing out medals at the end of each performance. Then, one by one, the girls made their way off the stage and back into the embrace of a support system that they have grown to know as an extended family over the past 11 years that Miss Amazing has been in Iowa.
At the end of the evening of the two-day event, crowns were handed out to the winners of each category. The title holders of 2023 Iowa Miss Amazing will advance to the Nationals later this year in Chicago, where they will visit with judges and present their passion presentations and vie for the title of National Miss Amazing.
While the crowns are nice, Laura Tooley feels the confidence and friendships that are forged along the way are the real prize.
“That’s one of the best things about Miss Amazing … the personal relationships.”