Ever since she was 11, Kylan Arianna Wenzel had dreamed of competing in the Miss Universe pageant.
There was just one complication: She was a boy.
With an age limit making this year her last shot, Wenzel moved up a previously planned gender reassignment surgery to six months ago. And on Saturday, as she took the stage at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, she became the first transgender woman to enter the Miss USA competition.
Wenzel — a 26-year-old Century City resident who declined to give her birth name — was one of 229 Miss California USA contestants who had dreams of moving on to the Miss USA and Miss Universe competitions. But in a crowd of ambitious women trying to stand out, Wenzel's story already set her apart.
“I always wanted to do what the girls did — play with Barbies, braid hair. It bugged me that I always got blue when I wanted pink,” said Wenzel, who began hormone replacement therapy three years ago.
Wenzel had planned on having surgery later this year but moved up the date after learning she would be too old to qualify for next year’s pageant circuit.
Miss California USA contestants must be between 18 and 27 at the time of the national Miss USA competition in February and are ineligible if they have been married or have given birth.
“My participation in the pageant is about me celebrating myself as a woman and having this experience with the other girls,” Wenzel said. “It motivates every girl to be the best of herself.”
Only one pageant contestant has so far confronted Wenzel about being transgender, she said, but by the time the conversation ended, they were friends.
“I’m just like any other girl trying to pursue a dream,” Wenzel said. “A lot of girls are starting to compare themselves to others, but all you can do is focus on yourself, be the best you can be and not worry about the girl next to you."
Wenzel, who is of German and Korean descent, was born to an American military family in South Korea, where she spent part of her childhood before moving to the U.S. She moved to the Los Angeles area in 2009.
She began going by Kylan after turning 18.
Her parents have not embraced her transgender identity, but Wenzel said a sister and twin brother have been supportive.
“The reason I decided to come out with this is I didn’t want to feel ashamed of who I was,” Wenzel said. “It was also about moving society forward and exposing people to transgender issues. California is such a progressive state that it gave me courage to come out with this.
"This is the place people come to pursue their dreams.”
While Wenzel is the first transgender woman to go for the Miss USA title, it's not the first time for the Miss Universe pageant system, which is owned by Donald Trump.
A transgender Canadian woman, Jenna Talackova, waged a successful battle against the organization last year to be allowed to compete in the Miss Universe Canada competition.
Talackova was awarded a Miss Congeniality prize.
Pageant officials will crown Miss USA California after a second round of competition Sunday at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium.
-- Joe Piasecki, Times Community News
Follow Joe Piasecki on Twitter: @joepiasecki