WASHINGTON (AFP) - "Trailblazing" doesn't typically come to mind when describing beauty pageants. But that's how one contestant in this weekend's Miss America pageant is being characterised.
Erin O'Flaherty, the first openly lesbian Miss America contestant, is one of 52 women hoping to win the crown on Sunday (Sept 11).
"It was a little bit scary," the 23-year-old told People magazine about the decision to declare her sexuality for the contest, "but there was never going to be another decision that was made."
Raised on a farm, O'Flaherty began competing in pageants five years ago as an 18-year-old student at the University of Central Florida, she told the magazine. She is representing the state of Missouri in Sunday's pageant.
Reactions to her taking part in Miss America "have ranged from vicious and hateful to supportive and joyous," she said in an Instagram post.
"At times, I've wanted nothing more than to protect myself and hide from the attention. But what change would that inspire?"
The most storied of US beauty pageants, Miss America earned some of the country's highest TV ratings when it was first broadcast during its heyday in 1950s. More recently, it and other beauty pageants have been increasingly criticised as sexist and outdated.
Miss Teen USA got rid of its swimsuit contest during its competition in July.
Previous prominent Miss America winners include Vanessa Williams, who became the first black winner in 1983.
She was forced to relinquish her crown when it became known that she had posed nude for Penthouse magazine.
Former Fox TV news anchor Gretchen Carlson, Miss America in 1989, made headlines this week by winning a US$20 million (S$27 million) settlement after filing a sexual harassment suit against her onetime employer.
This year's judges include Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast Gabby Douglas and celebrity tech billionaire Mark Cuban.