Angela Ponce, better known as the reigning Miss Spain, didn’t win the Miss Universe pageant Sunday.
But she didn’t seem to mind.
Simply by representing her country this year, Ponce became the first transgender woman to compete in Miss Universe. After the preliminary rounds, the 27-year-old model said it was “an honor and pride” to be part of the history of the pageant.
“This is for you, for those who have no visibility, no voice, because we all deserve a world of respect, inclusion and freedom,” Ponce wrote on Instagram on Friday. “And today I am here, proudly representing my nation, all women and human rights.”
Though Miss Universe — and other beauty pageants — have undergone scrutiny (and changes) in recent years to avoid objectifying women, Ponce said she embraced the competition as a chance to fulfill not only her personal ambitions but also to be an ambassador for Spanish culture.
For her national costume, she donned a traditional Spanish “bata de cola.”
“This is an iconic piece in Spain, also known all over the world,” Ponce explained on Instagram. “It is a precious reference of my country.”
Ponce said she had been dancing the flamenco since she was 6 years old. For the longest time, her dream was merely to perform the dance while wearing a flamenco dress. That didn’t happen until she was 17 years old.
“For a long time those were things I always wanted to do,” Ponce told Miss Universe organizers. “I put so much focus into it, that in the end, it became a reality.”
She smiled and motioned to herself, as if to emphasize: She wasn’t just wearing a flamenco dress now. She was wearing one at Miss Universe.
“None of us are obligated to be here. And for me, it’s a platform to share my voice,” she told Today Style. “To me, feminism is freedom to do what you want, when you want to. We cannot put brakes on the freedom of women, on one platform or another.”
The pageant seemed to embrace her, too, tweeting video of Ponce entering the stage with the caption: “A walk to remember. A historic night for #MissUniverse.”
It was a sharp change for the Miss Universe organization, which was criticized in 2012 after disqualifying transgender woman Jenna Talackova from the Miss Canada competition that year because she was not “naturally born” a woman.
After Talackova threatened legal action, the organization — then owned by Donald Trump — changed the rules to allow transgender contestants in its pageants.
“As long as she meets the standards of legal gender recognition requirements of Canada, which we understand that she does, Jenna Talackova is free to compete in the 2012 Miss Universe Canada pageant,” Trump attorney Michael Cohen said at the time. “Nobody is capitulating . . . Like all the other contestants, [Talackova] is wished the best of luck by Mr. Trump.”
Talackova ultimately finished in the top 12 of the Miss Canada pageant and was one of four contestants awarded “Miss Congeniality.” She did not advance to the Miss Universe pageant that year.
Fast-forward six years.
Ponce, who is from Pilas in southern Spain, acknowledged it had been difficult at times to live as a woman “in a society where everyone said I couldn’t do that” — but credited her family for supporting her.
“They’re my foundation so that my life could unfold,” Ponce told Today.com. “They saw to it that I did not have a traumatic childhood. They are my strength.”
The final portions of the Miss Universe pageant were broadcast live Sunday. Miss Philippines, 24-year-old Catriona Gray, was crowned the 2018 winner.
Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly referenced the talent portion of Miss Universe. The pageant has no talent portion.