For decades, Miss America was all about beauty and “perfection,” physical and otherwise. But like so much about the venerable competition, this has changed.

Ever since Alabama’s Heather Whitestone, who was rendered deaf after a childhood illness, was crowned Miss America 1995, disabilities have not been a hurdle to participation in the pageant at any level, local, state or national.

As a matter of fact, in the wake of Whitestone’s crowning, some cynical members of the media began referring to the “gimp factor” as part of the selection process.

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Last year, Montana was represented by Alexis Wineman, who has autism.

And in the 2000 pageant, Miss Iowa, Theresa Uchytil, competed despite being born without her left hand.

This year, there are two contestants with physical challenges. Iowa is again repped by someone missing a body part: Nicole Kelly lacks a left forearm. And Miss Arizona, Jennifer Smestad, was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome at age 10.

Neither see their challenges as a big deal, and in some ways, they are grateful for them.

“I can say now that there were times between (ages) 10 and 15 when I asked God why I had to have Tourette’s, and even asked him to take my life,” Smestad, whose platform issue is Tourette-syndrome awareness and advocacy, told the Arizona Republic. “Now I know why I had it — to be here and to help others not feel that way.”

For her part, Kelly believes her situation is pretty much irrelevant to the task at hand.

“The reason I’m here is not because I’m a public interest story,” she said to the Associated Press. “I’m here not because I look different, but because I have the intelligence, I have the ability and all the things that Miss America needs to have.

“I’m proud to represent those who look differently, but it’s about what you can do and how you celebrate it,” she said. “I’m just like you.”

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