A woman who was recently crowned Miss Utah USA after competing in the pageant five times will be the first openly bisexual contestant to compete for the Miss USA title in the competition's nearly 70-year history.
Rachel Slawson, 25, told NBC News that she was "shocked" when she won the Miss Utah USA competition Saturday because she "had been told no for so long."
The winner, who has been open on social media about her struggles with mental health and "finally coming to terms" with who she is as "a queer woman," said though the win was "hard to believe," she is ready to change limiting perceptions of beauty with her platform.
"There's so much stigma surrounding mental health issues and as a bisexual woman in Utah, there's a lot of shame," Slawson said. "But my bipolar disorder and my sexuality are part of what make me beautiful, and I want people who see my competing on the stage, to embrace the imperfect facets of themselves too."
Slawson recalled the first time she tried to end her life, she was 19 years old and had lost the Miss Utah USA competition. Her struggles, she said, have made her a suicide prevention advocate. When she is not competing in pageants, Slawson can be found working as a crisis counselor at the Crisis Text Line, a national organization that assists those struggling with suicidal thoughts, and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
"All I ever wanted is to save 15-year-old me's from the pain and struggle that I dealt with," Slawson said. "Growing up, I didn't have a lot of role models and felt really alone, and I want young people to understand that their struggles with mental health are nothing to be ashamed of and are no different than other health issues."
Slawson will compete for the title of Miss USA during the spring. Should she win, she’ll go on to compete for the title of Miss Universe in December, but no matter the outcome, her platform marks progress for LGBTQ visibility.
"As an openly bisexual woman, Rachel Slawson being crowned Miss Utah is a huge win for LGBTQ visibility," Anthony Ramos, GLAAD’s head of talent, wrote in an emailed statement. "Rachel’s presence on the Miss USA stage later this year will most definitely send a powerful message to LGBTQ Americans and Utahns, especially those in the bisexual+ community, who feel like they have not seen themselves represented in that space before."
While Slawson's participation in the Miss USA contest is historic, she isn't the first out queer woman to compete. In 2016, Erin O'Flaherty became the first openly lesbian contestant to win a state title in the Miss America pageant.
Strides in LGBTQ inclusivity were also made at the 2019 Miss Universe pageant, when Swe Zin Htet became the first openly lesbian contestant to compete in the competition — a fact made all the more extraordinary by the fact that homosexuality is illegal in Myanmar, her home country. Patricia Yurena Rodríguez of Spain competed in the Miss Universe 2013 competition, but did not come out as a lesbian until after the pageant.