Plus-Size Pageant Queen: How Winning Changed My Life

Allison Kopach, left, and Jenny Flores in the documentary "There She Is." Photo: Courtesy "There She Is"Allison Kopach is a pageant queen through and through. She loves glamorous gowns, heavy eye makeup and pretty much anything that sparkles. She also happens to be a size 20 and can totally work a runway—something she did to great effect two years ago when she was crowned Elite queen at the Miss American Beauties Plus Pageant. This week, a short documentary about her experience, “There She Is,” premiered online, brightening the oft-catty subject of pageantry with an empowering, body-positive tale.

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“I realize that not everyone is going to see me as a queen, and my hopes for the future are that people will learn to accept it just a little bit more,” she said in the film about plus-size beauty. The doc follows Kopach and fellow competitor Jenny Flores to and through the pageant, discussing body image and notions of beauty along the way. Flores shares hurtful tales about a boyfriend who told her she was “too tall and too fat” to marry, while Kopach talks about her need to do her hair and makeup even before a quick jaunt to the supermarket, to lessen the constant feeling that people are judging her for her appearance.

The film, just 19 minutes long, was released to coincide with the fifth annual Full Figured Fashion Week in New York and has already kicked up quite a buzz on Reddit. Kopach, 31, spoke with Yahoo! Shine this week about being in the pageant, which was her last, but which kicked off a year of positive changes in her life.

“A lot of people have preconceived notions of what happens at pageants,” she said. “They don’t see the dedication put into the preparation aspect, and that it’s a lot more than picking out a gown and makeup.” Because American Beauties Plus is a “platform pageant,” she explained, she and the other contestants spent a lot of time volunteering in their communities and preparing to speak on topics from health to pop culture.

Even “There She Is” filmmaker Veena Rao, who collaborated on the project with Emily Sheskin, admitted to feeling put off by the idea of pageants at first.

“We were interested in examining the constructs of beauty,” she told Yahoo! Shine. But, she added, “We both come from a feminist perspective, and many times people seeing our film are opposed to pageantry, because it’s a way to judge women by their appearance. But there’s something very empowering, too.” Kopach and Flores opened their eyes to that.

“It’s something they’re really passionate about, and we connected to it, because we’re passionate about filmmaking,” she said. Though Rao is not plus size, she related to some of the issues of feeling “less than” because she grew up Indian-American and didn't see many reflections of herself in the media, explaining, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

Kopach agreed, noting that the pageant had a great effect on her. “I grew because of the experience,” she added. “It was a sense of accomplishment, and it gave me the boost I needed to drive forward other things in my life.”

Allison Kopach today, as a brunette. Photo: Courtesy Allison KopachSince competing in the 2011 pageant—one of a handful in existence that provide a beauty platform for plus-sized women—Kopach has moved out of her parents’ home and into her own apartment, seen her retail career take off, and been focused on a quest to exercise and change her diet. That’s helped her shed 35 pounds, although, she stresses, “I don’t ever want to lose my curves, just be healthier.” She also wants to be in fighting shape in order to break into the competitive world of plus-size modeling.

Finally, the self-esteem boosting experience of the pageant put Kopach in the right frame of mind to find love, as she’s since met a “fantastic boyfriend,” which, she says, has sometimes led to uncomfortable situations in public.

“If I go out to a restaurant with him, the waitress doesn’t even pay attention to me, or she just snickers,” Kopach explained. One time, she said, she overheard a woman mutter, “That’s a dirty shame, because I don’t even have a boyfriend.” Still, the couple doesn’t let it get to them, stressing that he’s her number one fan.

“I think every woman has insecurities in a relationship,” she adds. “It’s just that most aren’t introduced by the public.”

Kopach said her weight has been an issue for her since childhood, when, while growing up in Indiana, she went shopping in the “Pretty Plus” section of JC Penney, relied on unhealthy fast food for affordable dinners when her single mom was at work, and was frequently bullied at school for being a big girl. “I was six feet tall by the time I was 11,” she said, “so I had a sort of double whammy.”

She recalled a time in high school, when, as an aspiring actor, she had chosen a monologue about a woman in an abusive relationship that she wanted to perform in her drama class. But her teacher, she said, “told me to my face that, because I was large, there was no way that I could relate to that character. I was 17, and I was like, something is very wrong with this.”

His hurtful comment stuck with her, though, and dissuaded her from pursuing a theater major. Instead, she studied marketing at Columbia College in Chicago, and it was there that a plus-size pageant promoter approached her. She entered her first such pageant, the Miss Plus USA Pageant, at 18, and was chosen as a runner-up. Though Kopach mainly remembers that she was woefully unprepared for the situation (“I wore my prom dress,” she said with a laugh; “it was pretty horrific”), it did offer her a powerful, positive image of what being a plus-size woman could look like.

“It really set the tone for me and gave me the self-assurance that carried me through my 20s,” she said.

Today, she added, she’s grateful for the big-is-beautiful visibility put forth to the public through events like the pageants and Full Figured Fashion Week. Though she, like others in the fashion and beauty world, would kill for a better selection of plus-size clothing.

“Finding cute clothes is definitely hard, and I can’t understand why these designers are not creating more for this billion-dollar industry,” she said. “Michael Kors is making a killing off his plus-size line—and I will pay top dollar for something that’s beautiful.”

So, hey, designers: Take note.

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