The first openly lesbian finalist of an international beauty pageant has said she plans to use her win to help push LGBTQ+ inclusivity.
Emma-Jay Webber was crowned Ms World International Woman – a title for beauty queens who promote body positivity and diversity – during the Ms World International Pageant, in Florida.
The fork-lift truck driver and mother-of-two, from Bristol, is “very proud” of how far UK pageantry has come in terms of inclusivity but added that more still needs to be done to improve what she describes as a “heteronormative industry.”
Speaking to PinkNews, she says: “I’m still trying to take it in. It’s incredible to be able to use this platform to promote my love of LGBTQ+ rights. This is a dream title to win.”
Despite suffering from jet-lag from her trip from the US, and having only been back in the UK for a few days, her win has “not been lost” on her.
“In the pageantry industry itself, there is hardly any LGBTQ+ history. When I won my first title, I became the first openly lesbian woman in UK pageantry, and that was 2019.
“That wasn’t that long ago, which is unbelievable. It was kind of a surprise to [me].”
Beauty pageantry wasn’t her first career choice for Webber, who says she has more of a sporting background.
“I was actually just googling things to improve my self-esteem because I was at a very difficult point in my life at that time, and stumbled across pageantry and thought: ‘Wow, those girls on stage have a similar kind of body size to me’.
“I had no clue what I was getting myself into. I just fell in love with the industry… What it’s about is not what people expect it to be.
“People expect it to be like [the Sandra Bullock film] Miss Congeniality or [the reality show] Toddlers & Tiaras where they spray-tan children. It’s not true at all, it’s about sisterhood and promoting your cause.”
‘A massive responsibility’
Webber’s main cause was clear from the get-go, especially after she experienced discrimination in pageants because of her sexuality.
“I’ve had my experiences in terms of people [asking] where my husband was and assuming my sexuality and gender and it was crazy.
“So, I felt a massive responsibility. I felt I’d found my place in the world, to be like: ‘This is what I’m meant to be doing’. It’s been a whirlwind since then.”
While things have improved in recent years, diversity and body-positivity have historically been a major issue in beauty pageants around the world.
‘A woman is a woman, a trans woman is a woman’
The first transgender competitor to enter the world-famous Miss Universe competition was Ángela Maria Ponce Camacho, in 2018 – having been crowned Miss Spain.
Although a wave of diversity and inclusivity drives have made pageantry a more welcoming place, Webber believes there are still problems.
“The terminology used in the terms and conditions have changed in the UK,” she says. “When I first competed, technically I was breaking the rules in the Mrs category because I was married to a woman at the time.
“The rules clearly stated that you had to be married to a man to be in the Mrs category.
“There are still rules globally that [say] to compete in a woman’s pageant, you have to be the same gender you were assigned at birth, which is unbelievable.
“A woman is a woman, a trans woman is a woman, they should be able to compete.”
‘I just needed to do something’
UK pageants have since implemented rules to allow trans women to enter, but Webber says that in less supportive countries “beliefs and legislation” prevent beauty queens from having the opportunities they deserve.
She recalls one instance of homophobia while competing in 2018, when she was holding hands with her girlfriend and received poor reactions from onlookers.
“You could just feel that atmosphere. People were looking and whispering, and that’s when I kind of realised, hang on a minute, this isn’t right. I needed to do something about it.
“My platform then changed to LGBTQ+ rights within pageantry. From there, it’s just escalated in terms of campaigns.”
This is just the beginning for Webber, who is ready and willing to help fellow LGBTQ+ beauty queens find their footing in a competitive industry.
“I always say it’s like a glamorous Brownies. We’re an army of women who want to make a positive impact on the world. If you want to get involved, absolutely do it, but do your research first.”
And she has a message for all queer people.
“In a world, at the moment, where we feel like we are going backwards… especially in the States – and the worry about what will come into place in the UK – just stay strong. LGBTQ+ people have always been here, will always be here.”