The first transgender woman to compete in the global Miss Universe pageant wants to make history as a role model for trans children around the globe — no matter whether she wins or not the top beauty title.
The 26-year-old Angela Ponce beat 20 other contestants in the Miss Universe Spain gala on June 29, qualifying for the global round of the pageant, which has allowed transgender participation since 2012.
The location and dates for this year's contest have yet to be announced. But Ponce is already planning to use it as a platform to draw attention toward high rates of suicide among trans teenagers, as well as legal codes that still discriminate against them around the world.
"If my going through all this contributes to the world moving a little step forward, then that's a personal crown that will always accompany me," Ponce told The Associated Press at the offices of the Miss Universe franchise in central Madrid.
The Spanish capital has just wrapped up its 2018 week-long pride celebrations, whose main theme was a call for equality and greater visibility for people with non-binary gender identity. Rights campaigners marching last Saturday welcomed the World Health Organization's recent move to take trans identities off the official list of mental health disorders, but highlighted discrimination faced by transgender people of all ages, including employment discrimination.
A study published last year by the European transgender group TGEU found that 77.5 percent of 885 transgender people over 16 years old polled in Georgia, Poland, Serbia, Spain and Sweden had considered taking their own lives and that 24.5 percent of respondents had made at least one attempt.
Ponce said she had suffered discrimination before as a model, being rejected for fashion events or shoots once designers or organizers discovered she had undergone a sex reassignment procedure.
But in those moments, she said her life motto — "To be the best is not an option, is a must" — gave her strength.
She said her experience growing up in a "loving and supporting family" but without any role models in a small town in southern Spain, near Sevilla, can be a useful story for others.
"My parents never had to go to school to demand any changes in attitudes, I did it myself," Ponce said, highlighting how she would meet aside with every new teacher and tell them: "Whatever name appears in the roll call, you should call me Angela."
The 1.77-meter (5 foot, 11 inch) model's career took off after she won a provincial beauty award in 2015, reaching new heights last month with the Miss Universe pageant.
"I closed my eyes," she said, recalling the victory. "All I wanted was to feel how they put on the crown because I was aware that it was a historical moment."
In 2012, 23-year-old Jenna Talackova was banned from Canada's Miss Universe pageant for not being a "naturally born" female. The organization — run at the time by now U.S. President Donald Trump — changed the regulations after she threatened legal action. Talackova made it to the shortlist in Canada, but didn't win entry to the international contest.
Six years later, Ponce says that transphobia remains a global problem, even in Spain, a country she sees as a pioneer in the protection of LGBT rights.
After Ponce's victory in the Spanish beauty title, she received hundreds of messages of support on social media, but also some criticism — even from some feminist, gay or transgender users who decried beauty pageants in general as objectification.
"We can't be hypocritical," said Ponce, rejecting the charges and describing her victories as success for all transgender people. "Beauty is used to sell everything around us, and beauty can also help us spread a message of equality."