Her long blond hair, peaches and cream complexion, and slinky lace-appliquéd gown make Justine Clark a prototype of a beauty pageant contestant, except for one notable trait: she’s in a wheelchair.
On Saturday, Clark became the first contestant in a wheelchair to compete in the Miss World Australia pageant’s South Australian state final in Adelaide.
“For somebody in a wheelchair to be able to compete is a big thing,” Clark said to The Advertiser. “I really hope it sends a message that no matter what your race, size or disability — whatever makes you different — you are beautiful.”
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Although she hasn’t disclosed how she came to be in a wheelchair two years ago, the 26-year-old says that what’s important for her is to act as a role model to empower young women.
“A wheelchair does not define me or limit me. I can still be strong, feminine, and beautiful,” she said.
Miss World national director Deborah Miller points to Clark’s inclusion in the pageant as proof that “beauty comes in all forms.”
“I think Justine is incredibly inspirational, actually, and she really embodies what Miss World is all about,” she said.
Although Clark didn’t win on Saturday — Aishah Stocker and Sophie Ludbrock were chosen to advance to the Miss World Australia finals — she could still participate in the nationwide final through the pageant’s Beauty with a Purpose campaign. The initiative raises funds for children’s charities around the world and the person who raises the most money will be given a chance to appear in the national final in July. Clark is raising funds for Variety, a local children’s charity.
“I know how challenging financially it can be to be disabled and I want to help families who are burdened with that stress,” she said.
While this was a landmark achievement for Clark and a first in Australia, this is not the first case of a woman with a disability competing in a beauty pageant.
In 2008, Abbey Curran made history as the first woman with cerebral palsy to compete in a Miss USA pageant when she was crowned Miss Iowa. Similarly, Katie Knowles, a 24-year-old resident of Newcastle, U.K., who suffers from a rare spinal condition that forces her to use a wheelchair or a crutch to walk, was the first woman with a disability to participate in a British beauty pageant in 2015. And the following year, Nina Morton, a 17-year-old in South Carolina who uses a wheelchair because of muscular dystrophy, was crowned Miss Mauldin Teen USA and went on to win the Miss Congeniality title at the Miss South Carolina Teen pageant.
“You can always chase your dreams, because that’s what I’m doing,” Morton said to 7 News. “This wheelchair didn’t stop me from getting on that stage. So if I’m helping somebody, even if it’s one girl, then I’m satisfied.”