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Cover Story

Lissette Garcia: Pageant Champ Has Lovely Attitude

Lissette Garcia in bright red gown

By Kathi Wolfe

It's not every day you get to speak to the "Queen of the World." But one November afternoon, Independence Today spoke with Lissette Garcia, who was crowned Miss Florida in 2010 and finished in the top 15 in the Miss USA pageant last summer. Garcia, 26, won the title of Queen of the World in a 2007 beauty pageant in Germany.

In a telephone interview, Garcia riffed on topics ranging from what it was like growing up as a first-generation American (her parents came to Miami from Cuba in 1980) to how she manages pain (she has spina bifida) to her current work in TV news reporting and production.

Garcia as Miss Florida USA

You might think that competing in and winning beauty pageants only involves being gorgeous, smiling and walking down runways. But you'd be wrong. Garcia said it takes discipline, hard work and determination to fulfill your dreams.

Garcia, who grew up in Miami, had dreams even as a young girl. She began dancing as a child. “Growing up, I always wanted to act and model,” she said. “I always wanted to compete in Miss Florida and Miss USA (pageants).”


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Some parents, thinking that it wouldn't be a viable career option or realistic goal, might discourage their children from entering the fray of pageant competition. Fortunately for Garcia, her family supported her ambitions. “They were ecstatic with it!" she said. "My parents and siblings were all a part of (my competing) in pageants. In a Latin household, beauty pageants are as big as the Super Bowl! We take it seriously!”

But even though her family loved and believed in her, Garcia faced challenges during her youth. “I spoke Spanish until I was 10 years old,” she said. “I didn't speak English.”

Garcia learned English at school. “I remember having difficulties in communicating,” she recalled. “It's hard to learn English when you don't speak it at home.”

By middle school, Garcia was speaking English. But her feelings about attending high school echo those of millions of Americans. “I went to Southwest Miami High,” she said. “I didn't like it! It wasn't my favorite thing. It's high school! You just want to get in and get out of it!”

From a young age, Garcia has had pain. At age 12, she learned that she had been born with spina bifida. “They found it because I started getting really bad back aches,” she said. “It's basically the vertebrae. My lumbar didn't form completely. They thought it was scoliosis. They took a full-body X-ray of my back, and that's when it (spina bifida) showed. You can't tell at all that I have it.” (Garcia doesn't use a wheelchair, crutches or any other mobility aid.)

The doctors who discovered her spina bifida didn't try to stop Garcia from following her dreams. They gave her pain medication, she said, and “they told me to keep dancing. It was keeping my back active. I would do simple things like staying on the ground with my feet up when I would get pain. Sometimes lying flat on the ground would help.”

Because her disability isn't visible, Garcia hasn't encountered disability-based discrimination, she said. But “I get a lot of pain,” she said. “Exercise helps a lot!”

When she exercises, Garcia is cautious. “I'm careful about which exercises I do so it doesn't irritate my back. I'm real careful if I do squats.”

Exercise – a major source of pain relief for Garcia – dovetails with the need for a beauty pageant competitor to be fit. “I work out five days a week. I do Pilates,” she said, which “involves more muscles than yoga.”

To keep fit, Garcia said she eats as healthfully as possible, including lots of veggies. “But now that I'm not in pageants, I can eat more sweets!” she said.

Garcia didn't win when she first competed in the Miss Florida pageant at age 19. But she didn't let that derail her plans. “I competed in Miami in a pageant and became 'Miss Cuban American.' Then I represented Cuba in international pageants – in Austria and South America. In Germany in 2007, I competed against 60 girls to win the title of Queen of the World.”

After that experience, Garcia competed again in the Miss Florida pageant. “I wanted to give it a real shot. I got a pageant coach. They specialize in (coaching pageant contestants on handling) runway, appearance and question-and-answer sessions.”

Lissette Garcia in swim suit

Pageant coaches advise contestants to enter pageants not because they want to win, but because they want to make a difference in their community and the world, Garcia said. “They tell you to always speak from your heart.”

Continued support from her family and her boyfriend at the time bolstered Garcia's confidence. “I had a boyfriend that supported me 100 percent in the pageant world,” Garcia said. “His love for me got me to try (the Miss Florida pageant) one more time before it was too late.”

Competing in a high-level pageant like Miss USA can be nerve-wracking, but with training, a contestant can deal with it, Garcia said. The Miss USA pageant took place in Las Vegas. Fifty women competed in it. “For 20 days, we rehearsed, did interviews, did a few things with local charities,” she said. “You know it's a competition. But you make the best of it. You get to know each other. You know that it's a lot smoother if you make friends than if you make enemies.”

Contrary to the pervasive stereotypes, pageant contestants aren't bimbos. “You have to be smart to be in a pageant,” Garcia said. “(The judges) want someone with a good foundation who has ambitions. They want someone with a career goal in mind, (someone) who's a good role model.”

Garcia didn't win a scholarship or much money from winning the Miss Florida pageant or competing in the Miss USA pageant. (She received $300 for placing in the Top 15 in the latter event.) But she didn't go home empty-handed at the Miss Florida USA pageant because the sponsor gives the winner gifts.

"For instance, La Casa Hermosa dressed me in gowns and dresses my entire year,” Garcia wrote in an email. “Florida Hair Extensions did my hair for an entire year as well. Marcolin gave me Roberto Cavalli eyeglasses, and Fernando Wong also dressed me for the year." At the Miss USA pageant, "I received a lot of gifts from the sponsors as well.”

But more important than the perks was the confidence she gained from the pageants. Competing in them opens up your personality, Garcia said. Before competing in pageants, she was reserved and lacked self-esteem, she said. “Being in pageants made me believe in myself. I realized my potential in industry. I became business-minded and strong.

“I wouldn't be having this full-blown conversation without (being in) the pageants,” she added.

Before becoming Miss Florida, Garcia was a student at Miami Dade College, studying to be a physician's assistant. After acing the Florida contest, she decided to go for what she really wanted to do. Now, Garcia is a junior at Dade majoring in journalism and mass communications.

She's doing more than just hitting the books. In addition to being a student, she is an associate producer and reporter trainee for WPIG TV (Local 10) in Miami. “I get to tell a story on TV," she said. "I've always been a storyteller.”

Garcia hasn't given up on her other dream either. “I'm still taking acting classes,” she said, adding that her experience competing in pageants will help her when she auditions for roles. “It will give me confidence.”

What advice does Garcia have for people with disabilities who want to compete in beauty pageants? “It's all in if you believe in yourself,” she said. “If you believe it in your heart, go for it. What's the worst that can happen? It's better to try and know the end result than to live a life thinking 'What if?'”

Kathi Wolfe is a writer and poet. She is a contributor to the anthology “Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability,” a Publisher's Weekly Top Ten Fall 2011 poetry book.

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