Melissa Mota is pretty bummed she won’t be attending the national Miss Amazing pageant in August.
In her first time competing at the state level, the 29-year-old Visalia native was crowned senior miss queen at the University of Southern California on March 25. After accepting her crown and sash, she was looking forward to the trek to Chicago for the national competition for women and girls with disabilities.
But under doctor’s orders, Mota, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis four years ago, will have to sit this one out.
Instead, she is happy that her roommate and runner-up in the competition, Erica Nunnelly, will take both their dreams to the national stage.
Nunnelly, 35, has already competed for three years at the pageant’s state level. This is the last year that she will be eligible, due to age limits.
I feel good about her taking my place.
Miss Amazing winner Melissa Mota
Mota and Nunnelly were the lone representatives of the central San Joaquin Valley at the state finals, where they competed against seven other women in the senior miss category for women 28 to 35 years old. It was Mota’s first time competing, and she thanks Nunnelly for introducing her. They say Miss Amazing has been an opportunity they won’t forget.
“I was kinda disappointed when they told me ‘this is your last year with Miss Amazing,’ ” Nunnelly said. But she thinks it’s fitting that she’ll go out her last year as a national finalist, if not a winner.
And although Mota wishes she could be the one taking the stage in August, she’s happy for her roommate. “I feel good about her taking my place,” she said.
‘This is a brand new experience’
Mota and Nunnelly met in 2015, both as referrals to People’s Care in Visalia, which aids those with disabilities in leading more independent lives. Mota had recently been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and Nunnelly, who has an intellectual disability, had been transitioning from a locked facility in Sanger, said Sharon Butler, a supervisor at People’s Care.
Butler said this is the fourth year the agency has sent women to compete in Miss Amazing, and the first time they are sending anyone to the national pageant.
“This is a (once-in-a) lifetime opportunity that a lot of women with disabilities will never be able to get,” she said. “Erica has never been out of this area, never been out of the state of California, never flown on a plane. All of this is a brand new experience for her.”
Along with a crown and a sash, Mota received a gift bag from pageant sponsors, and something else that she says is priceless. “Coming to Miss Amazing has taught me how to be confident and interact,” Mota said. After being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Mota said she became quiet and shy, which the Miss Amazing competition helped her overcome.
“They show you independence, they show you how to conquer your fears on stage and stuff,” Nunnelly agreed.
The Miss Amazing pageant began in 2007 in Omaha, Nebraska and has grown every year, branching out to 30 states in 2015. California has been part of Miss Amazing for six years now, said California Miss Amazing director Tiffany Chang.
They show you independence, they show you how to conquer your fears on stage and stuff.
Miss Amazing runner-up Erica Nunnelly
Mota and Nunnelly spent time preparing for the state pageant earlier this year by dress shopping and practicing for the optional talent portion of the show.
On stage, Nunnelly belted out Toni Braxton’s “Greatest Love of All,” while Mota chose “Fight Song,” by Rachel Platten. “I just thought, this song relates to me,” Mota said. “All you would hear from our rooms is Whitney Houston, and at the same time Rachel Platten,” she laughed.
The pageant also included an interview portion. Unlike Miss America, where competitors answer questions about current events, Miss Amazing contestants answer questions about themselves. Participants are scored in each category and judges take their disability into account.
Mota said she just went for it, and to her surprise, wasn’t nervous at all. “Just smile at them and answer the questions,” she said. “Be confident about what you’re saying.”
The competition part of the pageant is open to girls and women ages 10 to 35. Those who are younger or older are deemed “rising stars” and “shooting stars” and are still able to participate but aren’t judged.
Now, Nunnelly is preparing to leave for Chicago for the Miss Amazing nationals, taking place Aug. 4-9. She’s changing it up a bit for the talent portion, too. She’s been focusing her vocal skills on Toni Braxton’s “Un-break My Heart” and is planning on dress shopping soon. She is also selling candy bars and is hoping to get donations to her fundraising account to help cover the costs of the trip to Chicago.
“Erica is excited,” said Butler, who will accompany her to Chicago. “Nervous, but so excited.”
‘It’s a lot better than where I was living’
Thanks to People’s Care, Nunnelly and Mota now live in a two-bedroom apartment in Visalia, where they share the cost of rent and utilities. They help each other out, although Mota said sometimes it’s hard for her to accept it. “I'm the type of person who wants to try to do things first before I ask for help,” she said. “It's my way of being independent.”
Nunnelly, on the other hand, knew their relationship was meant to be from the first time they met.
“The minute I walked into her house and saw her,” Nunnelly said, “I was like, ‘she’s going to be my roommate.’ ”
But things weren’t always looking up for the two.
Butler, who has worked at People’s Care for nearly five years, said her staff has worked hard to help Mota and Nunnelly bloom.
After Mota’s symptoms progressed, she began using a wheelchair and was living in an apartment with her mother in Visalia. It was handicapped accessible, but Mota still found it difficult to stay independent. “It was hard to do things on my own,” she said. Now she is happy about her living arrangements. “She’s come a long way,” said Butler.
The minute I walked into her house and saw her, I was like, ‘she’s going to be my roommate.’
Miss Amazing runner-up Erica Nunnelly
Although Mota said she’s never been stereotyped or told she wouldn’t succeed because of her disability, Nunnelly can’t say the same.
Nunnelly, who grew up in Porterville, said she doesn’t speak to her family anymore. The staff at People’s Care are her mentors and family, and she relies on them for help.
Butler said Nunnelly had a challenging upbringing, and there were a lot of things she couldn’t do when she arrived at the center about three years ago. Nunnelly struggled because she had been locked away from the community and lacked coping skills, Butler said. “Erica had never had a job in her life,” she said. Now, Nunnelly works through Able Industries as a custodian in the Kingsburg area.
“If you see pictures of when I used to work with her almost three and a half years ago, and saw her today, you would be like, no, that could not be her,” Butler said. “It just took someone to come in and work with her and make her believe in herself.”
‘We’re all special in different ways’
Although Mota is a little disappointed about not being able to travel, she hopes there are more opportunities for her to represent Miss Amazing in the region. She’s happy she had a chance to travel to Southern California and meet other people who are in similar situations. “I talked to another girl in a wheelchair,” she said. “I interacted with her, and now we’re Facebook friends.”
As Nunnelly ticks off her to-do list for her upcoming trip, she adds that she’s learned an important lesson from not only Miss Amazing, but from People’s Care. “They are teaching us how to have courage,” she said, “and that just because you have a disability you’re not a different person. We’re all special in different ways.”