Valerie Gatto, Desirée Pérez, Helen Wisner, and Jordan Wessel
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."