LIMA, Peru— The beauty queens practice their poses and wait anxiously backstage to see who’ll go on to the final round of Miss Peru. On the TV screen above, their colleagues get called up in pairs to parade in front of the judges.
Among the 40 bikini-clad models, one woman stands out in her one-piece bathing suit. Her name is Mirella Paz, and her rounded hips and full-figured frame have made her this year’s most famous —and controversial—contestant for Miss Peru.
“I want to show the world and our country that a large woman can also be Miss Peru,” Paz tells me before she gets called out to strut the catwalk. She says she always wanted to be a model growing up, but never thought it was possible because she weighed 200 pounds.
“Every time I saw models on TV, I wanted to be there, inside the screen,” Paz told me. “But I also felt intimidated due to my body size, and because I got a lot of bullying over my weight at school.”
That changed a few months ago, when a chance encounter on Facebook led to Paz getting an invitation to participate in this year's Miss Peru pageant, the first ever to include a plus-sized model. Now the 19-year-old beauty queen is in the pageant finals and has become the talk of the town for boldly challenging beauty norms and inspiring thousands of women to live their best life.
“I identify with her,” said Ruth Encizo, a fiery fashion journalist who serves as one of contest judges. “She represents the typical Lima woman who is not afraid to take on any challenges.”
Paz’s whirlwind rise to fame began in December, when she wrote to the host of Miss Peru on Facebook to congratulate her on her birthday. Jessica Newton, who was crowned Miss Peru in 1987, said that she decided to answer Paz’s message because she thought it was endearing how the teenager had misspelled the word “fan”.
“She said she was a big fans of mine,” Newton told me during a Miss Peru filming session. “Then she said her biggest dream was to be a model.. and I told her that if she liked modeling so much she should try out for our beauty pageant.”
Encouraged by her role model’s invitation, Paz sent Newton some headshots and then showed up to a casting session for Miss Peru. She hadn’t sent any full body pics, so when she arrived at the casting she shocked judges who are used to seeing only slender women try out for the pageant.
“The people in my team were quite surprised when she arrived,” Newton acknowledges. “They asked if I really wanted her to come into my office”
Paz won over the judges with her authenticity and sheer joy for participating in the casting, and was given a chance to compete. Since then she’s made it through two elimination rounds, impressing judges with her warm personality, her grace on the catwalk, and her determination to buck the odds.
“She reminds us of three words that are essential for humanity,” said Luis Miguel Ciccia, a Miss Peru sponsor who also serves as a judge. “Yes we can.”
Peruvian media outlets have also fallen in love with Paz's unlikely story, and have featured the plus-sized beauty queen in dozens of articles, radio programs and TV interviews.
But for Paz, it hasn’t been a walk in the park. Many people have criticized her participation on social media, arguing that Peru should not be represented at Miss Universe by someone who is overweight. Some critics have even accused the Miss Peru organization of “promoting obesity” by allowing Paz in the contest.
“This is a stunt to generate interest in a contest that no one watches anymore,” tweeted Frank Rivers, a writer and actor.
Miss Peru organizers have replied that they are simply trying to change the way that beauty queens are picked. They want to broaden the selection process and identify women who have compelling stories the public can identify with.
“We want wholesome women with inner beauty,” Newton said. “Nowadays with technology, anyone can change their face or their body…but no one can give you values, no one can give you a spirit, or charisma, or the willingness to compete.”
Paz says she tries to ignore the criticisms while taking inspiration from her supporters. She already has 8,000 Facebook followers who regularly share her pictures and write encouraging comments on her page.
“I know that people can’t vote for the winner,” she told me after making it into the final round of Miss Peru; “but the support does feel good, and helps me to keep on going.”
Paz says she's also slimming down for the final round, because eventually she wants to be a regular-sized model. Since the Miss Peru contest began in February, Paz says she’s lost 30 pounds with the help of a nutritionist provided by the pageant.
Ultimately Paz wants to slim down to 132 lbs, a weight that would put her just about 10 pounds above the average Victoria’s Secret Model.
“I do three hours of exercise each day,” Paz told me. “For breakfast I eat a vegetable omelette and coffee with no sugar. And for lunch I have raw salad with a piece of chicken.”
Some find it ironic that the model who entered Miss Peru as an ambassador for plus-sized women is now trying to get skinny. But Paz says she is just following her dream in a healthy way, and wants to be remembered for her positive attitude, her courage and her strong will.
Her fellow contestants also seem happy to have her in the pageant.
“I’m super excited for her” said Janick Maceta, a blonde model from Lima who befriended Paz during the contest. “Weight is something relative, it can go up or down… but inner beauty, what you transmit to others, is something that you’re born with. You either have it, or you don’t.”
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.