Martha Michael | Riley Weinstein’s Crowning Glory

When I was a teenager, I considered entering a pageant. But like many young women I had visions of tripping on my gown, felt I had curves in all the wrong places and feared I’d go blank in the interview portion. Believe it or not, the only part I wasn’t afraid of was hitting the high D in my rendition of “The Laughing Song” from “Die Fledermaus.”

If you ever have trouble accepting your own limitations, you should talk to Riley Weinstein. She has spent a lifetime celebrating hers, cheerfully living life to its fullest despite her disabilities.

At age 2 she was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm followed by two strokes, which left one side of her body paralyzed.

“I had to relearn how to do everything – walk, talk – everything,” she explained. 

Riley has great fortitude and I’m convinced that it’s her bold wit and tremendous ability to make light of her shortcomings that have made her an inspiration to so many around her.

Those qualities also earned her the title “Miss Amazing California” last month. 

The pageant was created in Nebraska by a Special Olympics volunteer who wanted a program for girls and women with disabilities. The first Miss Amazing Pageant was held in 2007 and by 2015 there were pageants in 30 states. They held the first National Miss Amazing event in 2013 where 83 young women from across the country participated.

Riley will head to Chicago for the national pageant in August. The 26-year-old Canyon Country resident has won the title before in other divisions (determined by age), so she knows its purpose and meaning.

“When you’re crowned, you’re a leader to everybody else,” she says. “I’ve been Miss Amazing for five years, so over the years I’ve gained a lot of skills, I’ve learned a lot about being independent and learning leadership.” 

Calling itself a “culture of celebration and empowerment,” Miss Amazing is a movement designed to underscore the value in everyone. 

Each participant introduces herself onstage and there’s an optional talent portion of the pageant. As a dance instructor for people with special needs in Santa Clarita, Riley eagerly shared her lyrical dance talent to the song “Bigger Than My Body” by John Mayer. The lyrics accentuate the pageant’s message that there’s more to a person than what you see on the outside – an element shared by other performances in the talent competition as well.

“They sang very ‘empowering women’ songs that look beyond that they’re differently abled,” said Sawyer Gordon, Riley’s trainer at Results Fitness in Newhall. Sawyer served as her “buddy” for the pageant, which is a mentor who helps a participant prepare for the show. 

“As a female athlete and a coach I always like watching people push themselves in whatever way they can, and these girls are doing that,” Sawyer said.

After training sessions at the gym, Riley and Sawyer would work on her speech and she would practice walking in her pageant shoes. 

“Riley has really inspired me,” Sawyer said. “Our culture right now is very woman-strong and this is just broadening the reach of that, that all of us are beautiful, unstoppable people. It doesn’t matter if you have a disability, you can accomplish what you want.”      

The biggest challenge for Riley is the interview with judges that takes place offstage. 

“They asked me what makes somebody beautiful,” she explained. “I just said that I believe that everybody is beautiful on the inside. Bodies can be beautiful on the outside, but I think it’s what’s inside that counts.” 

That comment sort of summed it up, and it reminded me of the coincidental alignment between the Miss Amazing message and the aria I mentioned. The character is a chambermaid attempting to fool a master into believing she’s cultured and refined by observing her physical features. 

In Riley Weinstein’s case, however, what you see really is what you get – a warm and friendly young woman with the confidence we all wish we had. I could never compete with that.

Martha Michael is a contributing writer for The Signal.

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