From Disowned Son to Beloved Daughter: The Trials and Tribulations of New Zealand’s First Transgender Beauty Queen

Jade-Ceres Violet D. Munoz

Photo from Instagram: Arielle Keil

Her emerald green dress with the butterfly sleeves accentuated her perfect form. Her brown skin glistened in the sun as she took her walk. There’s more to the beguiling beauty of Arielle Keil than meets the eye. She’s New Zealand’s first trans woman contestant for Miss New Zealand 2020.

She has just made history by snatching the highly coveted crown. Ari is one of five beauty queens to win in the pageant. As the 1st runner up, she will be representing New Zealand at the Miss Intercontinental 2020.

She says of her win: “It was a literal dream come true. I have wanted this for so long. My friends and people that know me here in New Zealand know how long I’ve been working towards this dream so to see my hard work pay off was amazing.”

The Journey to Her Dreams

The world of beauty pageantry has not always been open and accepting of trans women. In 2012, beauty contestant Jenna Talackova had to go to court before she was allowed to compete in the Miss Canada pageant. On the global stage, Ángela Maria Ponce Camacho became the first transgender woman to compete in the Miss Universe contest after being crowned Miss Spain in 2018.

Keil’s entry into the new Zealand pageant as a transgender was a first for the country. “Having moved away from the Miss World organization, we have been able to update our rules to align with society and bring our pageant to the 21st Century,” said Miss New Zealand Director Rose Foulger in an earlier interview.

For Keil, the journey to achieving her dreams was a long and difficult one. The 26-year-old was born in Davao City, Philippines as a boy named Andrew. She moved to Auckland, New Zealand as a toddler. Growing up, she was taunted and teased for being effeminate.

“My whole life, all I heard was ‘bakla,’ ‘bayot’ (Filipino words that mean gay). I would come home crying because kids would bully me and not once did I think, ‘I’m gonna try to be more masculine’.’” Keil said.

The initial stages of her transition were among the most difficult in her life. When she first started hormone therapy in 2017, her parents gave her an ultimatum: stop or leave their home.

“I was kicked out of home when I first transitioned. It was hard for my parents to accept. It was probably the most lonely time of my life. My Ate (big sister) lives in the US and so I had no family. I was all alone.” Recounts Keil. She packed everything she owned into a black rubbish bag that night and walked out, not knowing where her life would take her.

The Transition to Womanhood

Keil completed her gender reassignment surgery earlier this year in January. She was supposed to take the year off to take it all in but instead jumped straight into the world of pageantry two months after her operation.

“I always knew I wanted the surgery. Like some transgender people, I struggled with body dysmorphia. It felt like a real-life nightmare being trapped in the body I had before. My mental health deteriorated severely so the surgery truly saved my life. I most likely wouldn’t be alive today if it wasn’t for it.” Keil said of her decision to undergo the operation.

“I flew to Thailand all by myself. I wish I had someone there with me but none of my friends or family could come and it was very ‘I’m doing this with or without y’all’. The night before my surgery was terrifying! I have wanted it my whole life but it is a very intense and invasive procedure. The first few days after my surgery was rough, I was all alone in another country, my body was extremely run down (I got vaginoplasty and breast augmentation at the same time so I could barely move) and I had just gone through probably the most life-changing thing to ever happen to me and I had no one to share it with. But through all of that, I was so happy, I felt unstoppable, liberated, and reborn. I truly felt like myself and at home in my own body for the first time in my life.” She recounts.

The Crown Weighs Heavily on Her Head

In a pageant dominated by the female-born, it did not take long for Keil to stand out. This half-Filipino beauty was radiant and stunning at the preliminaries.

“I felt well prepared going into Miss New Zealand! I was a huge pageant fan before going into it so I knew what pageants involved. It was an amazing experience! I’ve grown so much as a woman throughout it and the Ari that entered is definitely not the same Ari that came out on the other end.” She recalls her Miss New Zealand experience.

Keil will be representing New Zealand at Miss Intercontinental 2020. This will be the international pageant’s 49th edition. Candidates from more than 70 countries and autonomous territories will be competing for the title. The current titleholder Fanni Miko of Hungary will be crowning her successor.

“I’m excited to go overseas and compete internationally! I’m trying to get in the best physical and mental state for it! I want to do well overseas so I’m putting in the work -- there is A LOT of work that goes into preparing for an international pageant,” Keil says as she prepares for the next step in her pageant life.

As her journey to becoming a beauty queen unfolded, so has her improved relationship with her father. “My dad now accepts me fully as his daughter! It’s been a work in progress throughout my transition but we’re in a good place now! He’s so supportive of me. Honestly, I never thought he would ever come around but he has and our relationship is the best it’s ever been,” she says.

Beyond the glamour and glitz of beauty pageants, Keil hopes to continue to advocate for the transgender community. “There is still a long way to go before we are met with equality and the rights we deserve. I’m going to finish studying at university and hope to work as a creative director of an advertising agency one day. I also really want to be a mother one day. I’m super clucky at the moment! I froze my sperm before starting hormones replacement therapy so I can still have my own biological children. I’m currently saving for IVF and a surrogate.”

There’s nothing stopping Arielle Keil from achieving many more firsts in her life. She is set to blaze the trail for other trans women in the world of beauty and fashion.

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