Pageants – how they helped me connect with the Deaf community.

Pageants are a divisive topic. Some think that they’re outdated and laced with misogyny whereas others (like me) think that they are great confidence-builders, allow people to feel empowered, and give people a platform to promote the causes that they feel passionate about.  As a deaf person, they have given me a special way to connect with the Deaf community.

For as long as I can remember, I have been intrigued by pageants. They always seemed magical to me; watching the winner crowned was like watching a fairy-tale come to life. I struggled with my confidence all through my teens and into my early twenties. My weight was always an issue for me, and I alternated between comfort-eating and restrictive-eating. Naturally, my weight fluctuated because of this and it had a massive impact on my overall self-esteem. In my mid-twenties, I sought help for some of the things that were contributing to my lack of self-esteem and self-confidence and started working on appreciating who I was. At the age of 28, I felt like I was finally in a place where I was happy in myself, so I decided to take the plunge and enter my first pageant: Ms Galaxy UK. 

Deaf Pageant Ashleigh in a purple sash

My Journey

I was shocked. I had entered on a bit of a whim and never thought that I would be selected to compete – yet here was an email confirming that I’d been awarded the regional title of Ms Rotherham Galaxy. I’ve never done a pageant before, but I knew that the next 7 months were going to be hard work. I was ready for the challenge!

I started the journey back in April and the extra challenges I would face because of my deafness never crossed my mind. Of course, I thought about fitting in charity work, fundraising along with working full time, how I would buy outfits for four separate rounds on a budget… but it never occurred to me that being deaf might throw the proverbial spanner in the works. 

A lot of pageant systems love it when you get out there with your sash! It helps to promote you, the good work you do with your sash, and the pageant system. These are called ‘appearances’ and can take the form of charity work, fundraising events, and interviews to name a few. With pandemic restrictions still being in place, a lot of in person appearances are limited so interviews and events are still taking place via Skype and Zoom. I found this daunting because I rely on lipreading. If it’s an audio-only call, I can’t see their face and run the risk of constantly saying, “Sorry, I didn’t quite get that…” If there is video, there’s no guaranteeing that it will be in sync with the audio. Even on a good hearing day this is frustrating, and on a bad day it feels like I’m back in the world of dial-up.

And it’s not just the interviews that are difficult. On the day of the UK final, we will have rehearsals to learn the opening number and our interview round with the judges. I would hope that by November, restrictions and masks will be a thing of the past, but I need to prepare for if they’re not. I’ll have to make the pageant director aware of my hearing impairment so that adjustments can be made where necessary. Luckily, I’m decent-ish at following choreography but I’m always anxious that if I can’t clearly see what’s going on, I’ll make a mistake and hold everyone else up. During our evening rounds of fashion, swimwear, and evening wear, the music will inevitably be loud as we do our catwalks. I’m preparing myself for the possible sensory overload that might come with this and what I can do to remain calm and focussed on the stage in the moment. 

Deaf Pageant Ashleigh in a purple sash

Pageant Platforms

For most contestants, a big part of pageantry is having a platform or a cause that you are passionate about and want to spread awareness of. When it came time for me to choose my platform, D/deaf awareness didn’t come to mind straight away. Having been ‘hearing impaired’ from an early age and having no family or friends that were D/deaf, I’ve been stuck between the hearing and D/deaf communities. I never really felt like I was ‘deaf enough’ to claim to be deaf; even when I was given a hearing aid. Because of this, I knew nothing about the community that I should have been a part of from childhood and didn’t feel like I was best person to be raising awareness. But, seeing how our community was an afterthought during all stages of the pandemic, and experiencing the extra hurdles I had to get through, I became convinced this was the right platform for me. 

Statistics, signs of hearing loss, important D/deaf figures of history, simple BSL signs – there’s something every week to help inform and spread awareness. I use my pageant Instagram @msrotherhamgalaxy once a week; I’ve even created my own hashtag, #myeyesaremyears. This is as much of an education for me as it is for my followers. I feel myself becoming closer to the D/deaf community every day as I establish my identity as a deaf person and discover a sense of belonging. For the first time, I have found a community of people that understand and know how it feels to go through life with these challenges.

My journey as pageant contestant and member of the Deaf community run in parallel. Until the UK finals of Ms Galaxy UK on November 26th I’ll be documenting the highs and lows. My experience as a deaf contestant in a pageant offer an insight into pageant life… and a chance for me to find myself. 

Follow Ashleigh’s journey on her Instagram @msrotherhamgalaxy and via her hashtag #myeyesaremyears. Ashleigh Russell is a deaf writer and content contributor. To see another article by Ashleigh about embracing her deaf identity, click here.

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