Because I am the mom of a bright, beautiful daughter who lives stylishly with severe cerebral palsy, I watched the screener for HBO’s new documentary Miss You Can Do It at home, just in case of emotional overload. And, as I expected it would, the film — about former Miss Iowa Abbey Curran and the pageant she created for young ladies with physical and mental challenges — made me cry. Not out of sympathy or even catharsis — but for myriad happy reasons.
The film, from director Ron Davis (Pageant) deftly balances the challenges faced by children with special needs and their parents with delightful evidence of something we’ve known all along — that families like ours have as much capacity for joy as any other.
As a little girl growing up in rural Kewanee, Illinois, Curran dreamed of being crowned queen of the county fair. When she was finally old enough to enter the contest, a teacher told her, “Be realistic. You can’t do that.”
The bright and beautiful Curran was born with a form of cerebral palsy that affects the movement in the lower half of her body. But what that teacher failed to recognize is that she was also born the will to do anything she set her mind to — and in 2008, Curran was named Miss Iowa USA, becoming the first contestant with a disability in the history of the Miss USA Pageant®.
Four years earlier, recalling her teacher’s cruel words, Curran created the Miss You Can Do It pageant in her hometown of Kewanee. The nonprofit event allows physically- and mentally challenged girls ages 5-25 to experience the glitz, glamour and camaraderie of a beauty pageant — and their parents a relaxing weekend to network about pageant dresses and hairdos instead of walkers and doctors and uncertain futures.
On the eve its 10th anniversary in July, the pageant is now the subject of the delightfully uplifting Miss You Can Do It, which premieres tonight at 9pm ET/PT on HBO.
“I had read about Abbey in People magazine when she had won Miss Iowa and at the bottom of the article there was a small picture and description of the pageant,” Davis recalls. “That picture inspired me and moved me so much, so I quickly got Abbey’s phone number, called her up and within weeks was in Kewanee telling her what I wanted to do. I thought this was an amazing story and so genuine and pure.”
Suspect of Davis’ intentions, Curran admits she put him off for several years until she was certain he was the real deal. The Miss You Can Do It Pageant was about to take its place on the national stage.
With Curran and the other pageant officials onboard, Davis got to work meeting the contestants and their families — and discovered the tale he was about to tell was not entirely the one he thought. When I told the pair how much I appreciated that Miss You Can Do It shows that the lives of special needs families are frequently just a different kind of normal, Davis admits that outcome was really a natural extension of filming.
“That was a learning curve for me,” he says. “I said, ’I’m going to go in and see what this is and we’re going to show it onscreen.’ And one of the first questions I asked a number of the parents in the initial interviews — because of my naiveté — is how hard is it being the parent of a child with special needs? How hard is life? And this one father looked at me — his child is not in the movie, but she had severe cerebral palsy — and he said, ‘It’s not really hard. It’s inconvenient, because it takes a lot longer to do things that you take for granted, but that’s just life.’ Luckily that happened early in the filming process because it really summed up everybody.”
Because they got to know so many inspiring girls and insightful parents, Curran and Davis agree that choosing the families featured in Miss You Can Do It was especially difficult.
“It was easy in the sense that when you meet these girls, they light up. They shine. And they draw you in,” says Davis. “So from that perspective, it was easy to pick them. But what was difficult was that almost all of them do that. We spent time with a lot of families and then to tell them they’re not in the movie, that was the hardest part.”
Among the unforgettable young ladies viewers will get to know are:
• Seven-year-old Daleney (below left), who has cerebral palsy and idolizes Abbey. The relentlessly cheery, blond bundle of energy refuses to let her disability impede her independence and will work at a task until she masters it.
• Five-year-old Tierney (above right), who has spinal muscular atrophy type II, or SMA II, a slow, and sometimes fatal deterioration of the muscles. Though Tierney’s mom worries about her future, the animal-loving firecracker displays a maturity beyond her years and pilots her motorized wheelchair with the skill and confidence of a NASCAR champ.
• Natasha, a 14-year-old beauty born with mild cerebral palsy, is a nine-year veteran of the pageant and dreams of taking home the ultimate title. Her bespectacled 8-year-old sister Kenna has intellectual challenges, but is a social butterfly.
• Ali (below), a six-year-old corker born with spina bifida, rides horses as part of her physical therapy regimen. She’s also a big fan of using her parents’ cellphones — so much so that her parents sometimes have to remove the batteries to keep her habit in check. “Should I tell you who I called?” Ali whispers mischievously to the camera. “9-1-1!”
• Twelve-year-old Teyanna was stillborn but revived, resulting in severe cerebral palsy that affects her body but not her mind. Chafing at a nurse who suggested they institutionalize their daughter, Teyanna’s parents brought her home, where they admit they baby her. Her older sister, however, pushes Teyanna to do as much for herself as possible. The girl proudly reads her prize-winning essay on what it’s like to be disabled.
• Shy Meg (below left) has Down syndrome and a pair of brothers who dote on her. Nonetheless, worried that she might grow up without a confidant her own age, Meg’s parents adopted Ukraine-born Alina (below right), who has Down syndrome, too. The girls’ parents say their response to people who call them saints and wonder how they do it is that anyone can raise a child with special needs — it’s whether or not you choose to.
Curran says she recalls talking to a Miss USA judge after the pageant who told her, “We win things only so we can pass the dream on to someone else.” Because of that, every girl who participates in the Miss You Can Do It pageant takes home at least one prize. Curran says the judges ultimately give the Miss You Can Do It crown to a girl for whom the title is genuinely going to make a difference and who can serve as a role model and inspiration to her peers. Surveying the faces onstage and in the audience throughout Miss You Can Do It, though, it’s clear that everyone’s a big winner on this weekend in Kewanee.
Curran says that juggling her nurse practitioner studies at St. Ambrose University and searching for a sponsor so that more financially challenged families can participate in the pageant is exhausting, but she refuses to give up on the hunt for donors and celebrity contributors who can help her grow her dream. And make other girls’ dreams come true.
“It’s really difficult,” Curran says. “This year is our 10th anniversary celebration, and with the HBO documentary coming out, I’m so excited because I think that we’re going to get a lot of girls. I meet a lot of girls and they would love to do the pageant, but unfortunately we can’t afford it. And I’ll say, ‘Oh! It’s the 10th anniversary, so you’re in luck because we have a special and you can actually be in the pageant for free!” I’ve done that a few times this year because I’ve met so many amazing girls. I’m praying for a sponsor. I’m just praying for a miracle.’”
If anyone can make that miracle happen, Abbey Curran can.
Miss You Can Do It premieres Monday, June 24 at 9pm ET on HBO.
To donate to the Miss You Can Do It pageant, www.missyoucandoit.com and click Make A Donation.
Photos: HBO/ Teresa Ousley/Greg Cruse