Last April, following international fallout when pageant officials disqualified 23-year-old Miss Canada Jenna Talackova after learning she was a transgender woman, Donald Trump and his Miss Universe Organization announced a significant rule change to allow trans women to compete for any of their pageant titles.
Because of that rule change, 26-year-old Kylan Arianna Wenzel of Century City left her job as a shift manager at Jamba Juice, moved her sex reassignment surgery up six months and decided to pursue her life-long dream of confidently entering the Miss California beauty pageant.
“The first time I watched a beauty pageant was when I was 11, in 1997, when Miss USA won Miss Universe. And ever since then, it’s kind of been implanted in my brain,” Wenzel told Frontiers during a Jan. 3 phone interview. “I wasn’t sure how it would happen for me, but it was something I put out there.
“You have to put it out to the universe—what you want to do—and you have to follow up on it,” Wenzel continued. “So, let’s say for transgender individuals, even if you haven’t had your sex change and you’re not sure, you have to act like you are Miss Universe or you are the woman you see yourself being. And you do that in everyday life. So I just worked really hard. I saved for surgery. I started getting procedures early like laser hair removal—things like that. It really is about believing in yourself. But you also need people to believe in you, because you can’t really get that far, sometimes, when you don’t have that kind of support.”
Wenzel came to the conclusion that “nothing is impossible,” despite an extremely difficult childhood. Half-Korean and half-German, she was considered developmentally slow. “I always knew I was female, but it was really hard to register those feelings because of my development growing up,” Wenzel said. “And I also come from a very abusive background. But no matter how much I got beaten or what I was going through, there was kind of a fire in me that just said, I will! and I can, no matter what they say!”
Wenzel survived by doing research. She studied what happened to people from abusive backgrounds and decided not to do drugs, drink or smoke. She also consumed self-help books and Oprah to discover her purpose in life. “But the one thing I’ve always wanted most of all is wisdom,” she said, “discovering that you don’t actually have to experience something to learn about it.”
“My parents were physically abusive growing up, and I was also sexually abused,” she said. “But part of it now is really understanding and knowing your parents as human beings and why they were the way they were. So as an adult now, I don’t have any anger or resentment towards them, because I understand that they had a very tough life and that’s the only way they knew how to deal with it. I just find a way to communicate with people and connect with them. I think of their background and ask, why do they react that way? And that’s how I go through my everyday life with every person that I meet.”
Wenzel is also philosophical about beauty. “We all know that beauty is just skin deep. Beauty is not something that is earned—it’s something you’re born with or the doctor helps you with, whatever. Beauty is what you do with it. [The judges of Miss Universe or Miss USA] always pick someone who embodies a certain kind of role model. It’s the girl that understands that the platform represents something bigger than themselves—that when they win this, it’s not about them but what they can do for others. If you want to be successful in life, it’s not about what you can win or how much money you make. It really, really starts by serving others. When you can develop a connection and you can serve other people, people will follow you, because, first, you’re inspirational, and two, you become influential. What the pageant does—it motivates every individual girl to really become the best of themselves. They’re trying to find the highest expression of themselves.”
Wenzel is among 229 contestants participating in the preliminary Miss California show on Saturday, Jan. 12, at the Pasadena Convention Center. The 20 contestants left will then go on to compete in the final show on Sunday, Jan. 13, at 4 p.m.
Miss California pageant producer Keith Lewis finds Wenzel inspiring. “I so admire what Kylan’s doing, because she’s fought so hard to be here,” Lewis told Frontiers. “I think she will be successful in whatever she decides to do in her life. When we talked about her participating, she said, I really just want the other girls to accept me. And I think they not only accept her but will celebrate her because she’s loving and she’s open and courageous and she’s trying to do the best she can, like pretty much all of the rest of us.”
The Miss California pageant will be webcast live for a fee of $15 at misscaliforniausa.com. Or you can buy tickets through Ticketmaster. A longer version of this story will be available on LGBT POV.