28 Photos Take You Inside The Beauty Pageant For Girls With Special Needs

Photographed by Michelle Groskopf
Inspired by the Special Olympics and her own experiences in pageants, Jordan Somer founded Miss Amazing in 2007 as a local pageant for girls and young women with disabilities in her home state of Nebraska. In the decade since, she's fielded application calls in her college dorm room, received awards and grants from the likes of Teen Nickelodeon and Pepsi, and grew the program into a nationwide, non-profit organization with events in over 30 states.
Somer has no plans of stopping Miss Amazing's expansion, but among her lofty goals for growth remains the simple, core purpose of the pageant. "This is a platform where girls and women with disabilities can define themselves on their own terms," she tells Refinery29.
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"Women with disabilities are excluded from conversations about their own lives because they’re female and because they have a disability," Somer says. "They have this double discrimination that they have to deal with." It's not a coincidence, then, that most of the events within Miss Amazing are communication-based.
From the onstage introductions to the one-on-one interview portion of the pageant, participants are challenged to speak for themselves. Somer explains this helps them understand the importance of conversational skills ahead of joining the workforce.
Then, of course, there is an evening-wear segment and an optional talent showcase. "Our goal is to take certain elements of pageantry and to check others at the door," Somer says, adding that, although it's a pageant, you don't need to be a girly-girl to participate. "We try not to reinforce certain stereotypes of what it means to be a woman or to be feminine."
Photographer Michelle Groskopf attended this year's National Miss Amazing pageant to shoot and interview the participants. "It really puts life in perspective," she tells Refinery29. "There are young women there battling health issues with grace and positivity. You can’t leave without having all of your assumptions about disability completely turned around."
Ahead, view a selection of Groskopf's photos and get to know some of this year's Miss Amazing participants.
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Photographed by Michelle Groskopf  
"Once I realized I was in [for nationals], I was just so very ecstatic to be here. I was just awestruck at how beautiful these girls are," said Ashley Christoph, Jr. Teen Texas (not pictured).
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Photographed by Michelle Groskopf 
A participant poses while getting ready backstage.
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Photographed by Michelle Groskopf 
"Miss Amazing gives girls and women the ability to be the warriors they never really get to be at other events," says Christoph (not pictured).
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Photographed by Michelle Groskopf 
A participant practices backstage.
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photographed by Michelle Groskopf.
"A lot of people see people with disabilities as not doing very much — we just stay at home, they think, or, if anything, they think we're not doing anything without other people helping us. Just to see us out in the community doing things [is important]," says Nicole Minassian, Miss Amazing Teen Queen 2015 and current volunteer (not pictured).
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Photographed by Michelle Groskopf 
A participant, after the crowning ceremony.
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Photographed by Michelle Groskopf 
"We’re out here. We're living. We’re not just some story about someone having an injury or overcoming a disability. We are day-to-day people who have talents and beauty," says Tobi Heekin, judge (not pictured).
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Photographed by Michelle Groskopf
"Everyone who attends leaves a better person, from the contestants to the families and friends. It's also just a good time... There's a lot of laughter and silliness. It's all heart," Groskopf says.
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photographed by Michelle Groskopf.
A participant poses with her trophy.
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Photographed by Michelle Groskopf 
"I don’t know how many times in the seven years I’ve been in a wheelchair that I’ve had to make other people feel comfortable and make them think more than, ‘Oh she’s in a chair, poor thing.' I'm not a 'poor thing.' I have many blessings in my life," says Heekin (not pictured).
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Photographed by Michelle Groskopf 
A participant enjoys a break backstage.
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photographed by Michelle Groskopf.
"Winning a title showed me that I can do anything that I want to...and that if you work really hard and give it your all, you will be successful," says Rylee Howerton, National Miss Amazing Preteen 2016 (not pictured).
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photographed by Michelle Groskopf.
A participant completes the final touches of her look.
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photographed by Michelle Groskopf.
A participant practices her talent.
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photographed by Michelle Groskopf.
"These are smart, sassy young women who want the world to recognize and appreciate their uniqueness," Groskopf says.
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Photographed by Michelle Groskopf 
"Miss Amazing opens a lot of doors to sharing what you care about with other people. It gives you a louder voice, in a way, because you’re not just some random person — you have a support system behind you," Minassian says (not pictured).
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Photographed by Michelle Groskopf 
"Everyone has their moment onstage to receive their tiara and trophy, regardless of whether they are crowned queen or not. Then the winners are crowned. It’s pretty epic. There are tears and applause," Groskopf says.
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Photographed by Michelle Groskopf 
"A lot of girls spoke of feeling like an outsider in school or in their home towns, and the pageant was a place to feel acceptance and friendship. These are young women and teenagers, they want all the usual things: romance, college, a cool job, great friends," Groskopf says.
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photographed by Michelle Groskopf.
"You get to be in an environment with people who understand what it’s like to be different... There’s such a strong level of camaraderie here," Minassian says (not pictured).
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photographed by Michelle Groskopf.
"Miss Amazing gives women and girls a sense that, 'I can do this and you can’t stop me,'" Christoph says (not pictured).
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photographed by Michelle Groskopf.
A participant strikes a pose backstage at the talent showcase.
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Photographed by Michelle Groskopf  
"My favorite part is seeing everyone from different states come together and join into a big pack...it makes all the delayed flights worth it," says Abby Censabella, Rhode Island Jr. Miss (not pictured).
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photographed by Michelle Groskopf.
A participant makes a face outside of the event venue.
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Photographed by Michelle Groskopf 
"These girls' challenges are not the first things we should be seeing — rather, their accomplishments," Groskopf says.
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Photographed by Michelle Groskopf  
"Miss Amazing has gotten me more into myself. It's made me more open about my disability and not ashamed," says Morgan Rolfson, South Dakota Jr. Teen (not pictured).
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Photographed by Michelle Groskopf  
A title-holder relaxes.
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Photographed by Michelle Groskopf  
A participant poses after receiving her crown.
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Photographed by Michelle Groskopf  
"These girls that are just so amazing. I couldn’t ask for better friends," says Melissa Barvels, Minnesota Jr. Miss (not pictured).
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