Miss Universe pageant will feature two trans contestants, Rikkie Kollé and Marina Machete, for the first time

By Christy Choi of CNN

This year's Miss Universe pageant will feature at least two trans women for the first time after 23-year-old flight attendant, Marina Machete, was last week named Miss Portugal.

Machete will compete for the crown at the 72nd Miss Universe competition in El Salvador this November alongside Rikkie Kollé, who in July became the first transgender winner of Miss Netherlands.

In a video posted to the Portuguese pageant's YouTube channel ahead of the contest, Machete spoke about trans rights as part of her platform, describing rising levels of "transphobia and intolerance" worldwide as "alarming." She added that it was "heartwarming" to see the Miss Universe Organization, which changed its rules to allow trans contestants in 2012, being inclusive and "breaking boundaries." 

"As a trans woman I've been through many obstacles along the way, but fortunately, and especially with my family, love proved to be stronger than ignorance," she said in the video.

If either candidate wins, they will become the first trans woman to wear the tiara. In 2018, Spain's Ángela Ponce became the pageant's first trans contestant, but did not advance to the finals.

Neither Machete nor Miss Portugal's organisers responded to requests for interview, though in a statement to CNN the Miss Universe Organization said: "Trans women are women, full stop. We are here to celebrate women, full stop. This has been true for more than a decade, and we're proud to have made this change very early on, compared to other programs."

Rikkie Kolle
Rikkie Kolle, who became the first trans woman to win Miss Netherlands in July, will now be joined at November's Miss Universe competition by Portuguese beauty queen Marina Machete. Photo credit: Evert Elzinga / ANP / AFP / Getty Images

Over the past decade, Miss Universe, one of the world's most-watched beauty pageants, has reckoned with growing calls for greater diversity, representation and inclusivity. 

The organization lifted its ban on transgender contestants after Jenna Talackova, a trans competitor in the Miss Universe Canada national pageant, was told by organizers she would be disqualified because she had undergone gender-affirming surgery and thus did not meet requirements for the pageant. At the time, Miss Universe officials insisted the change was made in spite of, not because of, legal action threatened by a lawyer acting on Talackova's behalf.

In 2022, the Miss Universe Organization was bought by Thai media tycoon and transgender rights advocate Anne Jakkaphong Jakrajutatip, the star of Thai versions of reality shows such as Project Runway, for US$20 million. Jakrajutatip, who is also CEO of JKN Global Group, a Thailand-based media distribution company, has been outspoken about her experiences as a trans woman.

In a statement provided to CNN on Thursday, the Miss Universe Organization said it is "always evolving" and updating entry rules, adding that in the last two years married and divorced women, pregnant women and women with children have been allowed to join. In 2024, organizers will also remove the age limit that currently restricts entry to those 28 and under.

"Starting next year, every adult woman in the world will be eligible to compete to be Miss Universe," the statement added. 

Both Machete and Kollé have used their platforms to promote a more inclusive vision of beauty pageants, and to encourage others to feel inspired.

"Miss Universe asked us to describe ourselves in one word," Kollé said in a video posted to her Instagram page ahead of the Miss Netherlands final. "The word I'm choosing is 'victory,' because as a little boy I conquered all the things that came through my path - and look at me now, standing here as a strong, empowering and confident trans woman."

"Never forget that we can do this together, you're not alone on this planet. Never stop dreaming of being your ultimate and confident YOU!" she wrote in the accompanying caption. "Never let someone tell you what's good for you, because the only thing that matters is that you become the best version of yourself."

Miss Universe, which has been running since 1952, scores contestants based on personal statements and in-depth interviews, as well as evening gown and swimwear competitions. This year, nearly 90 women from around the world will compete in the pageant. While almost all the finalists have now been selected, a handful of countries, including China, are yet to confirm their representative.