LOS ANGELES -- Amid the photographs of beauty contestants competing in Miss California USA this weekend are those of two young women who are making history.
Jenelle Hutcherson, 26, of Long Beach and Mollie Thomas, 19, of West Hollywood are the first openly gay contestants in the 60-year history of the state pageant, whose winner will go on to compete in Miss USA, the national pageant.
"That Miss California crown would sure look nice atop the hawk," Hutcherson said, referring to her Mohawk hairstyle.
And Thomas wrote Friday on her Facebook fan page, "Interview, check! All-day rehearsal in five-inch heels, ouch! Bring it on."
More than 400 women are vying for the title of Miss California USA and Miss California Teen USA, compared to the 378 participants from last year, organizers say.
"The state (pageant) will emphasize individuality and push the envelope even further," Keith Lewis, co-executive of the contest, said in a statement. "This year's event will be bigger and reflect the progressive attitudes of the contestants ... "
The history-making journey started Friday and will continue through the weekend at McCallum Theater in Indian Wells. During the first round on Saturday, contestants will don swimsuits and evening wear. Only 20 women will be selected for the final round on Sunday.
Set apart in age, style and background, both Hutcherson and Thomas were approached by pageant recruiters to participate in the beauty contest.
Thomas, a part-time UCLA student, said this is her first time in a pageant. She agreed to compete because it allowed her to represent the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community in a positive way.
"I'm running for equality and will use this in order to promote visibility on current issues, to become a youth advocate and a role model," Thomas said in an interview.
A humanitarian at heart, Thomas has volunteered at a school for handicapped children in Mongolia, an elephant reservation in Northern Thailand and has helped rebuild homes in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Hutcherson, sporting a pierced nose and tattoos, is also using the contest as part of her ongoing effort to spread her message of tolerance and equality. A mentor at the LGBT center in Long Beach, she also hopes inspire young people.
"We have the power to create a better future for our kids by setting an example of treating each other with love and equality," she said.
This isn't her first time in the spotlight, though. Last October, Hutcherson became the first openly lesbian contestant in Miss Long Beach and made it to the finals.
She wore 1930s'-inspired board shorts and a tank top for the swimwear section, and for the evening attire, she ditched the gown and heels for a tuxedo. Hutcherson said she plans to change things for the state pageant.
"She's really promoting what she believes in and it's inspiration to other people," said current Miss Long Beach titleholder Kristen Bopp, 23. "I think it's great."
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