Pageant contestant hopes to raise diabetes awareness

NEWPORT BEACH — Some see beauty pageants as demeaning to women.

But not Heather Shields, 20. She finds the experience empowering.

"I figured if I could get on stage in front of lots of people in a bathing suit, I could do just about anything," she said at her home Friday.

Shields is preparing to represent Corona del Mar in the Miss California USA pageant in January and sees it as more than just a chance to get all dressed up, although she is excited about that too.

The competition gives her a chance to raise awareness about diabetes and, if she wins, a real platform to get the word out about the disease that has afflicted her since she was 11.

"If I won, I'd be in awe, and I'd really try to use that position to raise money awareness about Type 1 diabetes, and there are so many chronic conditions that so many people have and people just don't know about," she said. "You can look fine on the outside, but there can be something going on the inside that can really affect you on a day to day basis."

It was during a month-long ballet camp in New York City when Shields noticed that her health had started to decline.

She attributed her weight loss of about 25 pounds, lethargy and drinking copious amounts of water to dancing six hours a day in 90 to 100 degree weather.

It was not until three days after she returned home, though, that he mother took her to the hospital, where she fell into a coma. She was diagnosed with Type 1diabetes, a genetic version of the autoimmune disease that stops the pancreas from producing insulin, and her life had to change.

"It's really a life-changing experience," she recalled "because it's really a lot of children's first experience with what it means to be mortal."

She had to learn to check her blood sugar about 10 times a day, keep track of everything she ate and maintain a rigid eating schedule and monitor how exercising affected her.

Shields called that first year "insane," but it soon became routine. It was then, about a year after being diagnosed, that most of her feelings of anger and fear became more positive.

"It really put life into perspective for me," she said. "I mean, I never tried to take anything for granted when I was younger, but this is so cliche, but life is so fleeting, and you really need to use every moment to the fullest."

During that time, she competed in her first pageant, National American Miss Pageant, when she was 13 to raise awareness about diabetes.

She went onto to graduate from Corona del Mar High School and is enrolled at Scripps College in Claremont.

Shields wants to continue to raise that awareness and sees the title of Miss California USA as a way to reach a wider audience.

"There's only so much that you can do as one person, but when your involved in something like this, and I don't know if it's the sash or what, but people take you a little bit more seriously," she said. "They know you mean business."

Twitter: @britneyjbarnes

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