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Newport woman aims for Ms. America crown while speaking out about autism

It's easy to be cynical about why pageant contestants compete, but there was nothing easy about the experiences that led Oksana Vovk to this weekend's Ms. America pageant.

Since being selected as Ms. California Coast, the Newport Beach resident has been sharing her story about raising a son with autism.

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Though she's emotional when discussing her early struggles, Vovk said she wants to show people that such a diagnosis does not have to translate to a bleak future.

When she was 20, Vovk, a native of Ukraine, found herself in a new country and in what she described as an abusive relationship, with no job, a 2-month-old son and no family nearby for support.

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She put herself through school, raised her son as a single mother and is now a lawyer living in Newport.

According to her sister Mariah, Vovk put her through school to become a paralegal and supports their grandmother in Ukraine.

Mariah suggested Vovk try the pageant.

"I said, 'When are you going to do something for you?'" Mariah said.

Vovk had participated in pageants in Ukraine but said she had a good laugh at her sister's suggestion.

"I'm 40 years old," she said. "There are no pageants for people like me."

But Mariah did some research and found the Ms. America pageant, which is for women 26 and older who are married, single, divorced or widowed.

This year's pageant Saturday in Brea includes 43 women who will be judged on evening wear, sportswear and an interview. There is no swimwear or talent portion.

The women choose to run on platforms that are at the heart of the 19-year-old national competition.

"Their causes or platforms are near and dear to them," said pageant Chief Executive Susan Jeske of Irvine. "They come from their life experiences."

Jeske was the first Ms. America in 1997 and bought the pageant two years later.

When choosing candidates early each year, Jeske is most drawn by the experiences that inspired the women's platforms, she said.

So when Vovk decided to give it a try, her cause made her an easy choice for Jeske, who picks all the contestants from all over the country through an application and interview process.

Since becoming a contestant, Vovk has spent much of her time talking about and supporting the fight against autism, largely at fundraising walks.

"When you compete at 16, it's all about looks," Vovk said. "At this point, we have these life experiences and the women are excited about sharing their stories. It's not one of those toxic pageants."

The main point Vovk tries to get across during her appearances is how life can be after a loved one is diagnosed with autism. She wants people to see that she didn't give up and instead has created a full and fun life with her now-19-year-old son.

His participation in her appearances has made the experience even more positive for Vovk. She said he loves participating in fundraising walks where they meet other families.

Mariah added that he's eager to go to the pageant, especially since the family will be staying at a hotel.

Vovk said she's also excited to get to the pageant, where she will be able to meet the other women involved. They've communicated through Facebook and email, finding support with a variety of struggles.

"I think this pageant is life-transforming for many women involved in it," Vovk said. "It helps us to grow and gain self-respect."

According to Jeske, the women are bringing attention to issues such as domestic violence, breast cancer and concussions, attending at least two events a month to share their stories or help raise funds. They have volunteered so many hours — about 1,500 — that each recently earned the Presidential Volunteer Service Award.

Saturday's sold-out pageant is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. at the Curtis Theatre in Brea. It will be live-streamed on AlertTheGlobe.com.

The winner will receive a seven-day all-expenses paid trip to Hawaii, according to the competition's website.

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