Swinson uses her platform as a Royal International Miss queen to promote respectful and kind inclusion of people with special needs.

Looking down the runway, all eyes on her, junior nursing major McKenzie Swinson struts across the stage at the 2020 Royal International Miss pageant. All of her nerves melt away as she performs for the judges and wows the audience. 

The beauty pageant industry may get a bad reputation for being a misogynistic bikini show that exploits women, but that may not be the case anymore. Over the years, the industry has grown more inclusive. Miss America no longer has a swimsuit division, and many women are showing their talents through nontraditional means, like science experiments and gymnastics.  

Beauty pageants have also become more about supporting important social causes. Swinson recently won Royal International Miss Virginia and is using her position as a titleholder to bring awareness to individuals with special needs. She does this through her platform, “Choose to Include,” where she attends events that foster inclusion, spends time with special needs individuals and advocates for those individuals to be accepted. 

“My platform is about bringing awareness to the opportunities for inclusion in the community,” Swinson said. “I think it’s important to encourage people to openly interact with special needs individuals with kindness, respect and patience; they just want to be included.”

Swinson started her pageant journey when she was a senior in high school, which is later than most. She said she entered her first pageant on a whim but fell in love with it and saw it as a chance to build skills and confidence. 

“It’s never too late,” Kelly Seibold, Swinson’s Royal International Miss coach, said. “There’s something really beautiful about that late starting age. Those who start younger often get caught up in what [the judges] looking for, and they kind of lose themselves. For those who started later, you get that authenticity that’s really fresh and exciting to see in the pageant world.”

Although Swinson had a late start to her pageant journey, she said she’s grown as a competitor over the years and improved skills that’ll help her in her everyday life. Abby Farley, a friend of Swinson’s and a fellow pageant competitor, said Swinson has become more comfortable with talking to others through doing pageants and has helped Farley with her own self-confidence. 

“McKenzie mainly inspires me by being my biggest fan,” Farley said. “She’s been really helpful at reminding me how competent and how beautiful my body is the way that it’s made and that it’s not the most important thing in a pageant.”

Farley said she and Swinson both hype each other up for pageants and always help each other out if they need something. Even though there wasn’t a physical pageant in 2020, for the Royal International Miss pageant, Swinson said she went through the same process she would as if it were an in-person pageant and did her best given the circumstances.

“We had to make the quick transition to virtual, and I was nervous that contestants wouldn’t take it as seriously,” Seibold said. “[Swinson] came up with a plan. She came in, competed just like it would be at the international pageant, and she blew us away.”

Both Seibold and Farley mentioned how important Swinson’s community service is to her. Although it isn’t something that’s required for all pageants, Swinson said she looks at it as an opportunity to help others and use her platform for good. 

Swinson said that as a titleholder, she has the opportunity to act as a role model. She said special needs inclusion is important to her because she thinks everyone should be treated fairly. She said the people she helps truly hold a special place in her heart and that they’ve taught her how to be joyful in all acts of life. 

“I think special needs inclusion is just one area that shows the need in our society to treat everyone with respect, no matter what their differences may be,” Swinson said. “That need comes with the opportunity to teach others that special needs individuals have value and uniqueness that should be respected and even celebrated. I believe that inclusion isn’t just about accepting disabilities but about celebrating diversity.”

Contact Morgan Vuknic at vuknicma@dukes.jmu.edu. For more on the culture, arts, and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Instagram and Twitter @Breeze_Culture.