SPARTANBURG — Analouisa Valencia came to the door in a bright blue facial mask and sweatpants, surprised anyone was coming to see her.
“I’m sorry. I got mixed up and didn’t know you were coming today,” she told the reporter at the door. “Miss South Carolina contestants aren’t supposed to let people see them like this.”
Valencia isn’t the typical pageant contestant in a lot of ways. Her family doesn’t have a lot of money, she is biracial and bilingual and, in what may be a first for the Miss South Carolina and its parent Miss America pageants, she is openly gay.
“This is who I am. People tell me I am the most real pageant contestant they have ever met. I wasn’t open about it last year, and that’s why I think I was so uncomfortable competing,” Valencia said.
Valencia, who turns 20 on Tuesday when the pageant’s preliminaries begin, thinks she is the first openly gay contestant ever in the Miss South Carolina pageant, and perhaps in all of the Miss America competitions. The pageants don’t keep up with that information.
To some, it might be a bit surprising that South Carolina might have the first lesbian competing for a state crown. But Valencia said she hasn’t heard any harsh words since coming out earlier this year.
“I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback. I’m really surprised more than anything, but very grateful and humble that I haven’t gotten any feedback, because nobody wants any negativity in their lives,” Valencia said.
Valencia figured out she was gay in ninth grade and told her mother, friends and a few teachers. There was some worry and maybe a bit of disappointment, but it quickly faded away, Valencia said.
She met her girlfriend three years ago, and they went to each other’s high school proms. The couple didn’t get any grief from classmates.
Valencia became interested in pageants in 2000, when she joined a mentoring program for young girls called Palmetto Princesses and met Miss Spartanburg. The tiara got her hooked. She has been competing ever since.
Valencia was in the Miss South Carolina pageant in 2012, competing as Miss Electric City. She didn’t finish in the top 15. She is back this year as Miss Lyman and plans to sing the modern ballad “Footprints in the Sand” by Leona Lewis.
Her platform is “Special Olympics. Be a fan.” She has been a gymnast for much of her life and coaches several Special Olympians in the gym where she grew up. She is going to Spartanburg Community College with a plan to get a business degree and open up her own gyms.
Valencia is more confident this year, she thinks in large part because of her decision to come out. She didn’t make it lightly, recalling a long conversation with her mother, Hattie Palafox, to make sure she was ready for any slurs or other angry reactions.
Palafox is an English-as-a-second-language teacher who takes up interpreting jobs to pay for her daughter’s pageants. She met Valencia’s father in Mexico and learned fluent Spanish. She cheers for her daughter in Spanish at pageants so Valencia will know she is in the crowd.
The Miss America organization also backs Valencia.
“The Miss America Organization continues today to promote our great tradition of supporting young women across the country and from all walks of life to follow their dreams through education. Scholastic ambition, community service, and talent help to distinguish our contestants and we are proud to support, not hinder, their choices as we embrace their individuality,” the organization said in a statement.
Valencia gets similar support from Miss South Carolina officials.
Still, Valencia knows she lives in a state that politically isn’t very gay friendly. South Carolina passed a constitutional amendment in 2006 with 78 percent of voters assuring she and her girlfriend couldn’t get married or have any kind of civil union.
“I think that is going to change too,” she said. “I see people are accepting me as a person. I think they will eventually be able to accept that gays should be able to marry.”
Valencia isn’t shy about advocating for equal rights for homosexuals. She has accepted an invitation to give a message of tolerance at a local college. She had done a number of interviews about being a gay pageant contestant and answers all the messages of support she gets online and other places.
“Those mean a lot. I want anyone who thinks they are different and should be ashamed to know that it is OK to be who you are,” Valencia said.
And if she wins the Miss South Carolina crown, don’t look for some big speech about being gay. Instead, look to hear the state’s newest beauty queen talk about Special Olympics and the importance of tolerance for everyone.
Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.