Jo Anne Embleton
Jacksonville Daily Progress
“Do what you love,” said Olivia LeVoy, this year's Ms. Wheelchair Texas, “even if it means going against the crowd.”
Since she was a youngster, the dainty redhead has always loved beauty pageants, following the Miss America and Miss USA contests and dreaming of participating herself.
“I've always wanted to dress like those girls,” she said. “It’s very glamorous and I’ve always loved the rhinestones. I like getting dressed up, but I’m still a down to earth girl.”
However, diagnosed at age four with spinal muscular atrophy type three and using a wheelchair since her freshman year in high school, the 20-year-old realized the challenges that posed – until her mother, Amanda, discovered a magazine ad publicizing the Ms. Wheelchair Texas pageant.
“It just caught my eye,” Amanda said. “I was excited about it, (thinking) ‘You know, Olivia always wanted to be in a beauty contest.’ I’ll just call and see if she wants to do this.'”
She encouraged her daughter, who is in her second year of studies at Tyler Junior college, to apply.
“‘Go on and try, you’ll never know what’s going to happen,'” she recalled telling Olivia. “And lo and behold, she (was notified last fall) that she’d been named Ms. Wheelchair Texas USA.”
Laughing, Olivia said the call informing her about winning the title came while she was on her way to college. Excited, she called her mother, a pre-K teacher for Bullard ISD, at work.
“I don’t answer my phone when I’ve got my kids; I only answer when I go on break or at lunchtime. So she called the school and told the receptionist, who was excited about it and paged me, saying, ‘Ms. LeVoy, you need to come to the office, Olivia is on the phone.’ When I heard that, I thought, ‘Oh, no, something’s wrong,'” Amanda recalled.
However, worry quickly turned into joy when Olivia announced that she had been crowned Ms. Wheelchair Texas.
“I said, ‘Really?’ and she said, ‘Yes, Mom, really!’” she laughed. “But I’m excited about it, because Olivia has always want to (do something like this).”
More importantly, it gives her daughter the opportunity to encourage others to reach out for their dreams, and not be tied down by others' perception of them.
“Everybody wants to fit in. And it’s really hard for kids who have a disability to really fit in because people don’t know how to treat them, it’s like they don’t know what to do,” Amanda said, recalling how when Olivia wanted to show lambs and goats in grade school for 4-H, “we figured out a way to rig up her manual wheelchair so she could sit in her chair and I pushed her chair while she could take control of her animals.”
Because community service is a component of the national contest – held in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, July 16-20 – Olivia has chosen motivational speaking as her platform to inspire others – especially children – embrace what makes them unique
“We're all different; we all have our little flaws, things that we don't like about ourselves. And we don't like it when somebody points those out, so why would we (judge) somebody who is just a little bit different than us when we've got our own flaws? I believe that God created all of us, and that we're all unique. So why does it matter that someone is a little bit different?” she asked.
She hopes this realization will help cut down incidents of teasing and bullying.
“You don't even have to have a disability – someone is always going to look at you differently, or bully you, and it's to the poiånt that, for me, somebody needs to do something about it,” Olivia said.
She also wants others to understand that she defines who she is, not the circumstances surrounding her life.
“The wheelchair doesn't make me, I make the wheelchair, and I've realized that just because I'm in a wheelchair doesn't mean that I have to sit back and let that define who I am when someone looks at me,” she said. “I can show them the real me.”
The “real Olivia” is quiet and thoughtful as she meets someone new, with delightful sense of humor shining through as she becomes accustomed to that person.
Like when she described how she wanted to shatter others' stereotypes of “the average Texan.”
“We don't always walk around in boots and jeans … I think that's kind of what people might be expecting, and I thought you know what? I'm going to show them the glamour side,” she said, with a twinkle in her eye as she joked about sporting a big, puffy hairstyle.
“Oh, yes. The bigger the better – the bigger the hair, the closer you are to heaven,” she grinned.
This year's pageant theme is “Once Upon A Time.”
She's basing her wardrobe on outfits worn by Ariel from “The Little Mermaid” and is looking to two of her favorite country artists for inspiration: Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire.
“When she was looking at her dresses, that's kind of what she was looking at – what would Dolly and Reba wear?” Amanda said.
For now, Olivia is juggling college courses – she is studying agriculture at TJC, and plans to transfer to Texas A&M University to study ag business – operating the Rhinestone Cattle Co. (which she started at age 16 with Lucy, a lowline Angus heifer whom she and her family adore), and raising sponsorships for the July pageant.
“I'm looking forward to everything – the traveling, the new experiences, meeting all the other girls. I'm just really excited, because this is something that not everybody gets to (do),” she said.