The Miss USA pageant may be known for its glitz and glam, but there's more to it than bikini-clad beauty queens. While this year's contestants may have it all when it comes to looks, these beauties have brains, too. And their inspiring, extraordinary narratives are the backstory in a pageant that's famous for its swimsuit and evening gown competitions.
Yahoo TV spoke to four of these inspirational women ahead of Sunday's live competition in Baton Rouge, and we got the scoop on the serious side of the 2014 Miss USA pageant.
Desirée Pérez — Miss Connecticut, age 26
She was born in Venezuela, but a major medical scare caused Desirée Pérezto move to the United States at a young age to seek better treatment options. "I had a tumor that developed in my jaw at age 7," she explained to Yahoo TV. And although the rare tumor was benign, she had to undergo a series of reconstructive operations over several years. In an interview with The Connecticut Post, Pérez said when she came out of her first 13-hour surgery, "the doctor looked at my mother and told her, `Your daughter is alive by one inch.'"
"I've had 13 surgeries since I was 7," she said, including a bone transplant (her hip bone was transplanted into her jaw), several back-to-back surgeries, and the most recent operation that left her in bed for three months with her mouth wired closed. "My last surgery was two or three years ago, [but] I still go every six months to get checkups," she told us. And while she's healthy now, Perez — who shaved her head at age 19 so she could experience what it felt like to lose your hair during cancer treatments — tells us her health problem has made her stronger. "I won't say it was a cool experience, but it taught me a lesson. It's given me the ability to do anything in life," she said. "For me, inspiring others and helping others … a smile or a story can help someone. It's not about you, it's about someone else … helping others in society."
While she was raised "poor in every sense" and said "I was the only person in my family to graduate from college," this beauty's next step was a no-brainer: "I'm from Venezuelan background, so we're big on pageants. I grew up with it, and it's instilled in my heart."
Helen Wisner — Miss Arkansas, age 24
Future Miss Arkansas Helen Wisner was adopted at a young age, but as a child she didn't dream about finding her birth parents. "Actually, I hadn't thought a lot about it," she said. But as she got older, it became more important to her. "I look very different than my parents," she said. "I am obviously several different ethnicities. What ethnicity am I? What am I made up of?'"
Because her adoptive father was a lawyer who had helped handle her adoption, she had basic information about her birth mother. When she was in college, a friend suggested that they search for her birth mother on Facebook.
"I actually had a friend message her first," Wisner revealed. "She sent me a long message and said she didn't want to give me up. She kept me for two-and-a-half years." When her birth mom, a teen who grew up in foster care, became involved in an abusive relationship, she decided to put her baby up for adoption. "My first reaction to her story was, 'Thank you for having me,'" Wisner said.
"They told my parents I was developmentally slow and 'special needs,' because at 2 1/2, I hardly said any words," she added. But it's no accident that she was adopted by an educational examiner. "My [birth] mom chose her," she said. "They tested me and found out I was bright. Nobody had ever worked with me." Ironically, Wisner grew up to become a speech teacher, and she said of her eventual dream of becoming a pageant winner: "I think every girl dreams of this. I didn't think I could be this. [I thought] I had to be whiter, blonde, blue eyes. … Once I finally embraced who I was, I was able to come out of that shell."
Valerie Gatto — Miss Pennsylvania, age 24
When Valerie Gatto was in elementary school, she found out that she was conceived when her mother was raped at age 19. "I was in third grade," she said. "I found out basic information about why I didn't have a dad. My initial reaction … I really can't tell you."
While she learned early on that "bad things can happen," she credits her close-knit upbringing for getting her through the difficult times. "I was raised in a church by a loving and supportive family," she said. "I never let it hold me back."
Gatto said she's been using her pageant platform to empower others and added, "I actually started before I was competing — reaching out to women's groups [about] sexual assault and rape … getting out and empowering and educating. I come from humble beginnings. I wasn't born with a crown on my head." (While Gatto's mom was attacked by a stranger, two-thirds of sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim, according to Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network statistics.)
The University of Pittsburgh grad, who says competing for Miss USA has been a lifelong dream, keeps three things in mind at all times — "positivity, sacrifice, and hard work" — and says, "I believe I was born for a purpose. I'm here to be the light. I take that with me. … It really allows me to show the world, your circumstances don't define your life."
Jordan Wessel — Miss Arizona, age 20
Jordan Wessel woke up one morning three years ago and knew something was very wrong. "My senior year of high school, I woke up a different person," the Arizona State University studenttold Yahoo TV. "My stomach was killing me. My head was killing me." While some dismissed her ailments as nerves and anxiety, she said, "Finally, after three months of feeling nauseated and in pain, I went for tests, but nobody could figure out what was going on. It got worse and worse. I couldn't go about activities."
While some dismissed her ailments as nerves and anxiety, Wessel visited a prominent Arizona hospital three to four days a week and endured multiple ER visits in an attempt to get a diagnosis. "For two months, I was at home," she said. She was later tested for a tumor, told she could have early-onset Crohn's disease, and informed she was a carrier for Celiac disease, an immune reaction to eating gluten (a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye) which leads to difficulty in digesting food. After being told she would need to be on medication for the rest of her life and advised she'd have to "manage it," Wessel took matters into her own hands. "I researched fitness and nutrition, and kept a diary of everything," she said. "It slowly made me feel better. I eventually went off all medication."
Today, the 20-year-old says she knows she has to "steer clear of gluten," although she was never formally diagnosed with Celiac disease. (When she went for an endoscopy, she woke up in the middle of the procedure so she refused to go through with the test.) And she said she's still learning and teaching: "There's so much more I want to do. I've only been healthy for about a year."
That includes tackling a bucket list she made of all the things she wants to accomplish. Last summer, the ASU nutrition communications major checked one item off that list when she competed in a bikini fitness contest to help overcome her self-confidence issues. It was her first-ever competition of any kind. She calls a run at Miss USA "the icing on the cake." And even if she doesn't win the title, this beauty says, "Hopefully I'll still be able to touch so many lives… I intend to be working as heavily as I can and focus on fitness and nutrition, and go around teaching and educating young kids about the importance of a nutritious diet."
The Miss USA Pageant airs live on Sunday, June 8 at 8 p.m. on NBC.