Jan 14, 2019

On Her Day to Shine (and Sing), Gabbi Wears the Crown

Reporting Texas

Gabbi stands with her fellow contestants on the stage as the pageant draws to a close. She won a medal in every category, including Best Talent and Best Personality. Elizabeth Hill/Reporting Texas.

Sitting cross-legged on her bed, Gabbi Huerta cradles her iPad and holds her favorite puppet. She types into YouTube the name “Darcy Lynne Farmer” and watches the 12-year-old ventriloquist go to work.

The scene is from an episode of the television show “America’s Got Talent.” Gabbi watches Farmer start a song with her own puppet and raises her own, her beloved elephant Meena, to perform along. Gabbi mimics Farmer. Meena mouths the words. They sing for hours. They always do.

Gabbi has Down Syndrome, which makes it hard for her to communicate like other 17-year-old kids can. So she uses gestures, signs, her voice and and iPad with a special app to help her accomplish something her mother calls “total communication.”

Especially when it’s time for the pageant.

Gabbi has her hair fixed ahead of the pageant. Beauticians and hairdressers volunteer their time to the Miss Sweetheart Pageant to help the young girls. Elizabeth Hill/Reporting Texas.

A collection of tiaras lay on her dresser, by the sashes. Nearby, a light-up garland frames the window with pictures of Gabbi from the Miss Sweetheart Special Needs Pageant last year. That was the best day of Gabbi’s life, and not just because she won, because every contestant in the Miss Sweetheart Special Needs Pageant wins. It was because she found something she loved.

The junior walks the halls at McCallum High School in exclusion and isolation. She is essentially nonverbal. Her peers rarely engage her. Her family tried exposing her to sports and other activities, but none of them stuck. Gabbi’s star was born when she stepped onto that pageant stage.

This year, Gabbi competes again. On a sunny October morning, Gabbi and 22 other contestants make their way into the expansive Lake Hills Church in the Austin suburb of Lakeway, where the fourth annual pageant, affiliated with Special Olympics Texas, will begin in a couple of hours.

Gabbi brings Meena inside the dressing room. Other girls and their mothers turn to watch Gabbi and her entourage of family, wearing purple T-shirts that read “Team Gabbi, T21, The Designer Gene.” Her mom, Isabel Huerta, leads the pack.

Isabel encouraged Gabbi to participate in the pageant last year instead of having a party for her 16th birthday. She was persuaded by her friend, Courtney Shelton, the developmental director for Central Texas for the Special Olympics. Isabel was skeptical at first. But she was willing to try anything to make her daughter happy. She wasn’t sure Gabbi would feel welcomed, like the time she tried out for the high school dance team but felt too different from the other girls.

“Normally we would not be proponents, or advocates, for pageants,” Isabel said. “Until I saw this pageant.”

Gabbi loved it. She wore her pageant dress everywhere. She put the tiara and sash from 2017 in a special place in her room.

Gabbi sits on the ground after her energy hits a wall nine hours into the pageant. Elizabeth Hill/Reporting Texas.

“It was the best day of her life,” Shelton said. “She loves to sing and dance and the fact that she had the opportunity to do that in front of an audience, it’s every kids’ dream.”

Back in the dressing room, Isabel calls Gabbi over to search through the two racks of gowns. Sherri Hill, a dress designer in Austin, donates dresses to the Sweetheart Pageant each year, allowing every girl to take two home. Gabbi wiggles as she starts to try on each dress. She twirls in each gown, giggling in the dresses she likes and frowning in ones she doesn’t.

Gabbi twirls her dress in front of Miss Sweetheart Pageant’s motto “It’s Cool to Be Kind”. The pageant’s directors strive to make the participants feel noticed, cared for and important. Elizabeth Hill/Reporting Texas.

When she dons a light blue Cinderella ball gown with crystal beading on the bodice, time freezes.

Gabbi raises her hands in the air. She flashes the most genuine of smiles, her eyes squinting as she takes the edges of the skirt and turns in circles like a beautiful blue tornado. She rushes to the makeup station, with her elephant in tow. She bursts into song.

A volunteer puts blush on her cheeks. Another one styles her pixie-cut hair. Her mother gives her a crystal headband. Gabbi flies out of the chair and disappears.

Isabel looks around and knows she could only be in one place.

“She just wants to be on the stage,” Isabel says.

And there she is. Gabbi runs around, signing again, throwing Meena up and down and catching the puppet.

In few hours, she and Meena will be back on that stage, performing “Hallelujah” from “Sing,” one of her favorite movies, in the talent competition. That will be the second-to-last event of the pageant, right before gowns. But first, there are other parts of the pageant for Gabbi. She has a long list of tasks to accomplish on this night.

She first has her interview. It lasts five minutes. The two volunteer judges ask her about her love of Meena and singing.

“She can answer her own questions,” Isabel said. “What they are saying with this pageant is it’s OK to be you, exactly the way you are.”

Since Gabbi is non-verbal, her primary modes of communication are sign language and her elephant puppet Meena. Here, Meena answers the interviewer’s questions with a roar. Elizabeth Hill/Reporting Texas.

Gabbi prepares for the stage portion of the pageant, which includes costume wear, talent and evening gown. Gabbi bursts on to the stage as Malyn Bannister, the emcee and CEO of the pageant, calls her name.

Melby Huerta, Gabbi’s aunt, sits in the front row and cheers as loud as she can when Gabbi graces the stage. She is back supporting Gabbi for the second year in a row.

“I don’t think I have ever seen her so happy,” Melby says.

On pageant day, Gabbi is the center of the universe. All realties fade away. Gone are the feelings of exclusion and isolation.

“She is an invisible child for 364 days a year,” her mother says. “But on this one day, she is the most visible.”

Bannister and her mother, Rhonda, have been crowning girls for the last nine years. Rhonda and her husband, both police officers, use The Law Enforcement Torch Run as a fundraiser for the pageant. They raise over $1.5 million dollars in donations.

Always present for the pageant, Rhonda takes the mic and calls each contestant forward by name and gives each girl her own title.

“Our Teen Elite Miss Sweetheart is … Gabbi Huerta,” she announces.

Gabbi lifts up her gown and shuffles forward only to raise her hands high in the air and take another bow.

Gabbi holds two bouquets of flowers after the pageant. Many of her family members attended the pageant in her support. Elizabeth Hill/Reporting Texas.

Even though the crowning moment is important to Gabbi, her favorite parts of the pageant are talent and costume wear.

Gabbi and Meena sing “Hallelujah,” with grace and poise. Normally, Gabbi would be hamming it up for the crowd, but she takes this subject matter very seriously.

The costume portion of the pageant lets Gabbi become her source of confidence, Meena.

Clad in her elephant costume, trunk and ears and all, she raises her hands and begins to sing.