Making Local History: Rachael Benson makes her mark at Miss Washington Teen

Shorewood student Raechel Benson participates in Miss Washington Teen as first contestant with Down Syndrome

by Rowan Casselman, Reporter

March 21, 2021 was a big day for Raechel Benson. Not only was it her 18th birthday, but she participated in the Miss Washington Teen pageant. Raechel is the first contestant to have Down Syndrome, and, fittingly enough, the pageant was on World Down Syndrome Day.

Photo courtesy of Paula Benson

Raechel’s mom, Paula Benson, explained how this came to be. “She wanted [to do] modeling, and we just weren’t sure what to do since the Down Syndrome Community Fashion Show wasn’t happening. Raechel talked with [a past]… Miss Washington [Teen] winner. She told Raechel about the Miss Amazing contest, which is a contest for disabled kids. We were looking to do that… but they don’t have that in Washington so then it was like, why don’t we just try for Miss Washington [Teen]?”

The competition perfectly matched Raechel’s passions. “The thing that got me really interested was all the modeling and talents,” Raechel said. “What I want to do in the future is to be a fashion designer.”

Paula says her daughter is quite fearless and ambitious. “She’s amazing to me. She’s totally a trailblazer in everything.”

Maureen Francisco, the co-executive producer of NW Productions, the company that produces the pageant, agrees. “It’s very easy to throw in the towel when the pageant journey gets difficult, especially during a pandemic. Not Raechel. She is truly fearless.”

People with disabilities are not always included, but the judges of the competition exceed Paula’s expectations. “When [Raechel and the judges] did the first interview… they knew she had Down Syndrome. They asked her the same questions they would ask anybody else, they took the time to understand what she was saying… and they weren’t phased by any of it. I knew from the first meeting that this was going to be a good experience.”

Right away, Raechel did the things all the other contestants did. “She had to work to get sponsors like Special Olympics, Lake City Gymnastics, the Down Syndrome Community [and] Shorewood,” said Paula.

Raechel said, “The pageant [was] virtual, [so] I had to stay home.” Because it was all online, she submitted three videos. “They showed those when they did the different parts,” Paula said. 

Raechel added, “My favorite talent to show is to sing ‘If Only’ from ‘Disney Descendants.’ It was pretty awesome, and I know the words to the song.”

Although they were not able to go to the event, the Bensons still felt very involved in the whole process. “They have lots of motivational zoom calls. They bring people in to teach them how to do the pageant and teach them how to be competitive… She got to participate in all of that and it was just a fabulous experience for her,” said Paula.

On TV, pageant contestants are generally shown to be competitive and vindictive. “I didn’t see any of that,” Paula said. “Practically all of [the other contestants] friended her on Instagram, and the [girl] who won mentioned [Raechel] in her post about the whole thing. These girls are really strong, independent young women… very engaging and supportive.”

Raechel agreed, saying, “I am most proud of all the girls because they are beautiful and… older than me.”

Francisco says Raechel had a desire to grow and learn. “She took it upon herself to join… and converse with the other delegates. I wanted to show through Raechel’s story how fearless she is taking charge of her life.” 

Although Raechel didn’t win the competition, she still made a big impact. “It was quite inspiring to watch. I know people in the audience went crazy when Raechel made the semifinals,” Francisco said.

Paula definitely saw Raechel grow from the zooms. “She’s come to realize that, if I want to look like this, I need to make these eating choices. If I want to do this thing, I need to get my work done first. I’ve seen her [mature in this kind of way] from each experience. She gets to see, ‘I have this strength, I have this experience, I have this thing I can share,’ and it builds her confidence,” said Paula. “She’s grown a lot, each one of these things she does builds to do the next one.”

Franscisco says she also noticed a change in Raechel since the beginning of the pageant. “I saw Raechel light up even more. It was a joy to watch her during our zoom meetings… [with] speakers that would talk to the contestants about not comparing themselves to others and being the best version of themselves.”

Raechel’s advice? “For everyone to be their own Disney princess.”