Although we’ve made a lot of progress in terms of body acceptance and inclusivity over the last few years, the reality is that America as a whole still adheres to very conventional standards of beauty. Being young and beautiful is a high priority for many, as is evidenced by the number of cosmetic surgical procedures performed and the widespread acceptance of anti-aging treatments like Botox (which lasts three to six months per session, on average). And while some people aren’t too eager to budge on their own definitions of beauty, others are willing to push the boundaries a bit — sometimes, from the inside out.
That’s what Madeline Delp, the reigning Miss Asheville USA, hopes to do. Petite and blonde, Delp might not seem to have anything new to add to the conversation. But she, along with 2 million additional Americans each year, uses a wheelchair to get around. When you consider the sheer number of people who rely on mobility aids — which are often made from various metals and plastics (including those created through the reaction injection molding process) — it might not sound so impressive that a traditionally attractive woman is entering a major beauty competition. But the fact remains that Delp would have actually been the first contestant in a wheelchair to win a title, if the stars aligned in her favor.
Someone has to be the first, after all, and Delp is no stranger to fighting an uphill battle. After living through a devastating car accident when she was only 10 years old, Delp lapsed into a coma for several weeks. When she regained consciousness several weeks later, she learned that she was permanently paralyzed from the waist down. Understandably, Delp says she suffered from anxiety and depression for years — but the beauty queen subsequently decided to start pushing boundaries and living her life to the fullest.
Delp decided she wasn’t about to give up on her dreams, regardless of how she gets around. At age 20, she entered and won the Ms. Wheelchair North Carolina pageant. She then went onto win Ms. Wheelchair USA in 2017, which inspired her to dream even bigger. She became Miss Asheville next and had her eyes set on the Miss Carolina USA pageant. When she competed last year, she placed in the top 15. She came back for more this year, hoping to take the title. While she didn’t quite make it there, she did place in the top 10 — and was named Miss Congeniality.
Delp wrote in a heartfelt Instagram post: “I am very proud of how far I have come in order to be the strong woman you saw on stage, despite all that has tried to keep me down. Is Miss USA ready for someone in a wheelchair? I believe so… maybe they won’t get it this year, but I certainly hope that is a barrier broken soon.”
In the meantime, the truly all-American beauty will likely be staying busy. Delp founded Live Boundless, an organization that provides wheelchairs to people in need all around the world, and regularly travels across the country as an inspirational speaker. She’s gone horseback riding and skydiving, regularly partakes in aerial yoga and boxing, and clearly doesn’t let anything hold her back. Most of all, she hopes that her aspirations will inspire others to adopt a more accepting view of others and recognize that there isn’t just one way to be seen as attractive, powerful, or successful.
“There [are] still many ideas of this cookie cutter image of what beauty represents, and I want to be able to have that really open conversation,” Delp said to a local news affiliate. “I am doing this to show people that no matter what your situation, or what your challenge [is], you can shine bright.”