When a woman with an artificial limb walks across a pageant stage in a bikini, people take notice. When 19-year-old Michelle Bush did it, they may have noticed a different set of limbs.
She was born without her lower right arm, but all she remembers of last year's Miss Sacramento County swimsuit competition are her shaking legs. Come showtime, she wasn't a bikini-clad woman with a partial limb. She was a bikini-clad woman with an audience.
Bush traveled alone to Las Vegas last week to attend Saturday night's Miss America pageant after saving money for a year. For her, her mother, sister and grandmother, the big crowning moment has always been a popcorn event. They convene around the TV while Dad looks at his watch and whistles his way out the door.
This year she watched the pageant like a real avid fan: sans commercials, from a cushioned seat in the Planet Hollywood Resort Showroom. The pageant means a little more this year.
The college student competes again for Miss Sacramento County Feb. 9. If she wins, she advances to fight for the Miss California title. A crown there would give her dad a very good reason to finally watch the Miss America pageant.
Bush wasn't raised a pageant girl. She's only competed the one time, taking home Miss Congeniality but not cracking the top five. When her grandmother suggested she give it a shot, her mind turned to nothing but gowns, hair and makeup. She was thrilled.
Upon further research, she learned there was more to it. Scholarship money superceded glamour. Once she got going with the organization's community service, however, even the cash paled in comparison to charity work.
"Making volunteerism personal," Bush proudly declares when asked her platform. "I want teens and young adults to find something they can pursue to really give back."
She found hers, Shriners Hospital, as a patient. The children's hospital specializes in prosthetics, burns and orthotics. The amount of time Bush spent there as a kid exposed her to cases that made it difficult to mourn a limb she never had.
Between the hospital and her parents, she also saw her prosthetic arm, not as something that accommodated "normalcy," but something that catapulted talent. Bush plays the violin and had a spot on her high school's varsity volleyball team. Both skills require two hands. One of hers happens to be man-made.
Her prosthetic limb consists of a forearm and hand, which, with the help of sensors, can open and close based on muscle movement. It easily slides on and off and can throw people when hand shakes are in order (she offers her left one).
Having had her prosthetic limb since she was a toddler, you'd think grade school for her brimmed with "character-building" experiences. On the contrary, Bush has always attended parochial schools with the same kids she saw every Saturday at her Seventh-day Adventist church.
Realizing a prosthetic limb could be a distraction to 8-year-olds, her third- grade teacher had Bush stand before the class one day and answer every question her peers had for her. After that, she can't really remember it being an issue, not for her classmates or herself.
"My mom has taught me to look at every obstacle as God's way of teaching you something, or an opportunity to meet someone new or learn something about yourself," she says. "I don't know if I would've looked at life that way if I had different parents."
Bush has a habit of talking with her hands. On a recent morning at Starbucks, she talked with one hand. The other had been detached and sat on the table in front of her, as if waving to the passers-by that did double takes over it.
She was recalling her favorite pageant moments of years past. When Ericka Dunlap was crowned and jumped around so much she lost an earring. When her mom predicted 17-year-old Teresa Scanlan would win for her calm confidence.
Having enjoyed a closer seat this year, surely she took home some new memories. And, who knows, maybe next year she'll watch from the stage.
Contact Xazmin Garza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0477. Follow her on Twitter @startswithanx.