116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
MARION — As 13-year-old Shelby Kurth skims through the pages of Vogue magazine, she pauses to pore over a Christian Dior model: a tall woman serving high fashion in sleek black, squarely facing the camera with a determined look in front of a hot pink backdrop that matches the reader’s nail polish.
“This one,” she said, looked like her, “because she’s beautiful.”
After being crowned Iowa’s Miss Amazing Junior Teen Queen in April, the confidence the teenager with Down syndrome earned still hasn’t faded. Donning a fierce look and poise that matches the model’s, Shelby knows how to turn virtually any room into her runway with a turn of the head, flip of the hair and hand on her hip.
“I don’t know if she realizes she’s doing it … but she’s breaking down some barriers and stigma of Down syndrome,” said her father, Jay Kurth. “Even though, technically, Shelby has an extra chromosome, I always think it’s not that she has an extra one, but the rest of us are missing one.”
But for the girl who basks in the limelight of pageants as the princess of her dreams, the beauty is more than skin deep.
“She’s just so full of love for everybody, regardless of who you are, what you do, what you look like,” said mom, Kim Kurth.
Shelby has a way of sensing when someone needs a smile, always knowing what to do to make them feel better, said those who know her best — primarily through her signature Shelby hug.
In a hallway of visitors at the hospital’s oncology ward, the often shy girl feels compelled to offer an embrace to total strangers. At car cruises, her touch melts the hearts of gruff-looking attendees. If a child is crying, she’ll ask what’s wrong.
At one point, she had to learn that she couldn’t hug everyone, everywhere.
“She doesn’t care who you are or what your beliefs are,” Jay said. “She’s your friend.”
In doing so — with or without the crown, the makeup, the primped hair or the sparkly dress — she acts as a model for others just like her, watching her on stage and off.
“Representation is everything,” said Nikole Villanueva, a service provider with The Arc of East Central Iowa, who has worked with Shelby for four years.
After watching Shelby evolve from the girl who had to whisper her McDonald’s order to the young lady who can talk to strangers unprompted, she’ll accompany the Kurths to Tennessee, where Shelby will compete at the national level for a chance at an even bigger Miss Amazing crown.
There, she’ll show off her talent by moonwalking and serving moves to the beat of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.”
Like many girls her age, the reigning Miss Amazing Junior Teen offers a nuanced personality. A fan of hot pink and Cinderella, she’ll get all dressed up to help her dad work on cars in the garage.
With the confidence of a princess, she enjoys being the center of attention, both in and out of the cars her parents drive at car shows and rallycross races. While cruising at annual fundraisers like Cruisin’ for Camp Courageous, she has a preference for the Jeep that allow her to be more visible. A speed demon at heart, she prefers to ride with her father, who tends to drive with a heavier foot.
“She’s my tom princess,” Jay said.
Shelby’s musical likes reflect a diverse taste with Michael Jackson, Elvis, Queen’s Freddie Mercury and Tina Turner at the top of her playlist. But Shelby knows more than the lyrics — she’s a walking encyclopedia of artists and celebrities, with details memorized down to the way some have died.
When Shelby got involved in pageants six years ago, prompted by a mail advertisement for National American Miss, Kim and Jay hoped it would just be something for her to enjoy.
“I (thought) Shelby would just love it, getting gussied up and going out in front of people to be a princess,” Kim said. “And she did. She gets to, once a year, be a princess.”
Her favorite part of pageants?
“Winning,” Shelby said, highlighting her competitive streak.
Conversely, the hardest part about pageants?
“Losing,” she confirmed.
But the confidence she carries now came with time. One of her first American Miss introductions came unprompted. Without cue, she learned the pattern of introductions from other contestants, offering more detail than she had practiced.
With the power of pageantry, Shelby is seen being not a different person on stage, but rather a person in her element.
“We were just floored,” Kim said. “We knew she was capable, but we didn’t know to that extent.“
Her capability is just one of the lessons she has instilled in those who love her most. After learning how to lose gracefully and be happy for other winners, she consoles her father after bad runs at rallycross races.
“I think probably what (stands) out is she just cheers everyone on,” said Morgan Tooley, state director of Iowa Miss Amazing, the pageant that provides girls and women with disabilities the opportunity to build self-esteem.
The Kurths are working to raise $4,000 by July 16 at shelbykurth.com to cover expenses for Shelby to participate in the national competition for Miss Amazing.
With the chance to help them build confidence in a fun and supportive environment, Tooley says Miss Amazing gives every girl like Shelby a chance to feel like a queen.
“You don’t turn on Miss America … and see someone with Down syndrome winning,” Jay said. “She’s able to be in a positive environment where they are the stars.”
Without being tokenized for their disabilities, girls like Shelby are seen for who they really are. In an environment where they are the stars, Shelby is limited only by what she wants do to.
When Jay mentions to new folks that his daughter has Down syndrome, the typical response is “I’m sorry,” he said.
“Well, I’m not,” he responds.
When Shelby’s parents look at her, they see a girl as beautiful as the models in Vogue, too.
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