Wearing a sparkly, pastel pink dress and a wide smile, 15-year-old Anna Hankins took center stage.
The Mississippi teen was competing for the crown in the state Miss Amazing competition, a pageant for girls and women with disabilities.
Anna weighs 380 pounds — the result of a rare genetic disorder called Prader-Willi syndrome, the South West News Service first reported. The condition, which only affects about 1 in 10,000 to 30,000 people, can cause problems with physical and mental development, leading to low muscle tone, intellectual impairment and an insatiable appetite, according to the National Institutes of Health.
But at the Mississippi Miss Amazing pageant several months ago in Senatobia, Miss., Anna was simply introduced as a high school student who loves her puppy, the color pink and singing at church.
Anna participated in an evening gown showcase and a talent event at the pageant. A video showed the teen singing to Chris Tomlin’s “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)”:
“I once was lost, but now I’m found / Was blind, but now I see. ’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear / And grace my fears relieved / How precious did that grace appear / The hour I first believed. My chains are gone / I’ve been set free / My God, my Savior has ransomed me / And like a flood His mercy reigns / Unending love, amazing grace.”
Ultimately, Anna was crowned queen in her age division. Now the Mississippi Miss Amazing 2018 Junior Teen is preparing to represent her state at the national competition in Chicago later this year.
“I love Miss Amazing,” she recently told SWNS. “My favorite thing is singing and makeup and hair.”
Anna’s mother, Jennifer Hankins, said her daughter has competed in the pageant — and won the state title — three times.
She said that Anna’s condition prevents her from participating in sports and other extracurricular activities, but the annual pageant gives her something to do.
“She loves to be the center of attention,” Anna’s mother said Tuesday in a phone interview with The Washington Post. “From hair and makeup to getting onstage and singing for her talent … she just loves looking forward to something. This is her thing. This is the one thing that she can do.”
Anna, from Louisville, Miss., was born with Prader-Willi syndrome, a chromosome disorder that has also caused her to have a speech delay and some behavioral problems, her mother said.
Her mother said the disorder is also responsible for Anna’s appetite because her brain does not tell her when she is full.
“I get hungry a lot,” the teen said of her condition in the interview with SWNS. “It can be difficult to deal with sometimes.”
It wasn’t until Anna turned 2 that doctors diagnosed her with the disorder and her parents finally learned what was wrong.
“When she was little, the first words out of her mouth were ‘I’m hungry’ and the last ones were ‘I’m hungry,’ ” Jennifer Hankins told SWNS.
She said her daughter would swipe food from her parents’ dinner plates or steal from cabinets or the refrigerator, even eating things that were spoiled and needed to be thrown away.
“We would get up in the morning, and in the middle of the night she had gotten up and made a whole cake,” she said. “We would clean her room and find empty food wrappers and candy wrappers — anything she could get her hands on. We just didn’t know how to stop it. She got bigger and bigger and bigger.”
Eventually, Jennifer Hankins said, she had to put a lock on certain cabinets and on the refrigerator. And for a time, she said, the family had a night nurse to keep an eye on the child while her parents slept.
She told SWNS that her daughter can’t help it — because “she is hungry all the time.”
At 15, Anna has heart failure and hypertension — mostly because of her weight — as well as scoliosis and sleep apnea, and she requires oxygen to help her breathe, her mother said.
The teen is on a strict 900-calorie-a-day diet and an exercise routine, but that only keeps her from gaining weight, her mother added.
“She does really good as long as we stay on a schedule,” Jennifer Hankins said, explaining how she keeps a schedule with a menu to let Anna know what she is going to eat and when she is going to eat it.
That routine, she said, helps her daughter avoid meltdowns.
“When we finish a meal, she’s wanting to know what is the next meal — so she’s constantly wanting to know ‘what am I going to eat’ and ‘where is it coming from,’ ” the mother said.
Jennifer Hankins said she wants to raise awareness about her daughter’s disorder and about the beauty competition that has given her a new focus.
“Taking part in Miss Amazing definitely helps with her self-esteem, and seeing the other girls that have special needs helps her know she is not the only one,” the mother told SWNS. “She loves getting dressed up, wearing dresses and going up on stage and singing. She loves being the center of attention.
“I cry every time. I get nervous and anxious for her, but then she gets up there and shines and can be herself. It’s a moment where we can forget about all her problems.”
Lori Brasfield, director of Mississippi Miss Amazing, called the teen an “inspiration.”
“Prader-Willi syndrome is rare, but Anna takes those difficulties in stride,” Brasfield said in a statement to The Post. “At Mississippi Miss Amazing, she makes friends easily and loves being pampered by the hair and makeup artists. She is not afraid to meet the judges for interviews or take the stage to showcase her talents. She embodies what Miss Amazing is about by sharing her talents and abilities with her community, as well as at our state and national events.”
Jennifer Hankins told The Post that she does not want her daughter to be defined as someone who has Prader-Willi syndrome.
“I’d rather her be defined as Mississippi Miss Amazing,” she said.