This month, the Miss Universe pageant is taking place after a year-long delay due to the ongoing pandemic. It’s a sight that I honestly didn’t see coming but I’m finding myself pretty excited about. Around 90 women have arrived just north of Miami, after some time in quarantine and several COVID-19 tests, for an event they have waited a long time to participate in. These women have waited nearly a year for this opportunity, staying in competition mode throughout the pandemic to live out this dream. Fans around the world are thrilled to see the annual event is finally taking place, although with several extra safety precautions in place. And while the excitement of the event has gotten everyone on social media talking, I think it’s fair to say there’s one thing people need to remember: words have power.
For those who are new around here, I was crowned Miss USA in 2011 (this upcoming June marks 10 years since I was crowned), and that gave me the right to compete at Miss Universe representing the United States. I have experience being at this magnificent event, and so I know exactly what those young women are going through as they endure long hours of rehearsals with swollen feet and blisters, all-night video shoots, and fierce competition. I know what it’s like to have so much support surrounding you, to feel loved and cheered on by people all over the world. But I also know what it’s like to receive hate and to endure such intense cyberbullying that it forever affects you as a person. Brace yourself for a long read, as this is an extremely personal story with a lot of intense and sensitive revelations.
I’ve previously shared about my Miss Universe experience on my friend (and fellow former Miss USA) Kristen Dalton’s website She is More, but this is the first time I am addressing it on my own blog. For those who have been around since my Miss USA days, you’ll know the story I am going to share.
I was crowned Miss USA on June 19, 2011, in Las Vegas, Nevada, after 3 weeks of competition with some of the coolest, most beautiful girls in the country (shout-out to the class of 2011!). If you watch my crowning video (there are several on Youtube), I left my mouth wide open because I was extremely happy, honored, a little terrified, and in shock as my name was announced as the winner and the crown was placed on my head. At the end of the telecast, co-host Andy Cohen said, “Be sure to watch Alyssa compete for the Miss Universe title live from Sao Paulo, Brazil this September.” Holy shit. I was going to Miss Universe.
In the months leading up to Miss Universe, online pageant websites and forums followed my every move and studied every photograph of me. I had a ton of support from around the world, with people cheering me on to hopefully bring home the Miss Universe crown after 14 years. I first started watching Miss Universe in 2006, when I was just a 16-year old girl who simply loved to be onstage and play dress up, and now here I was preparing to compete on that same stage five years later. My schedule became busy, and preparing for the biggest competition of them all started to cause some anxiety. I had started seeing a therapist shortly before I won Miss USA, but I had not seen one after I was crowned and wouldn’t end up seeing one again until after I competed at Miss Universe. I began to internalize to a severe degree. That internalizing caused me to lose weight, and at a rapid speed thanks to several undiagnosed conditions.
I had been having digestive issues for a long time. For most of my life, I had a hard time at meal time. I’d be hungry and ready to eat, but could only manage a few bites before I suddenly felt full. I’d crave cakes, waffles, ice cream, hot chocolate, grilled cheese – basically all the carbs – and I’d dive right into plates of them but never be able to get past a few bites. My brain would tell me I’m full, and if I continued to eat anyway, I’d become insanely nauseous (plus I have a phobia of vomiting). I was frustrated, because I was watching the pounds disappear from my body and there was nothing I could do. Doctors were confused, because aside from my eating issues I was relatively healthy. Blood tests came back fine (except my Vitamin D is always naturally a bit low), but my BMI was dangerously low, my ribs began to stick out, and my face slimmed down even more. All while this was happening, I was feeling immense pressure to do well at Miss Universe because people were expecting it of me and counting on me. I would be wearing the USA sash, after all. I felt doomed already.
When I arrived in Brazil, I wasn’t feeling my best but I was determined to fight through. I had chosen an evening gown that made me feel like a queen but also hid the parts of my body where my bones were most visible. It’s what made me feel the most comfortable at the time, plus it had a gorgeous train and it was so different from the usual pageant gowns. But the truth is I was so relieved that we were in Brazil during wintertime because that meant I got to wear long-sleeved dresses and tops, so I didn’t have to show off too much of my body except during the swimsuit competition.
But none of it mattered, because as soon as I arrived, that’s when the comments began. And they were awful.
When I competed at Miss Universe, Instagram wasn’t really a thing yet. I think it existed, but I didn’t have an account (I opened one after the pageant). Twitter was THE social media platform at the time, and in the pageant world, so was a bunch of public forums. Look, when we compete at events like Miss USA and Miss Universe, we know what we are signing up for. Of course there’s the crown and the celebrity life (heads up: there’s more to titleholder life than being a “celebrity” but that’s a topic for another day), but we know there will be those who like us and those who don’t, those who love and those who criticize. There will be talk. There will be comments. Some good, some not so good. What we don’t sign up for is relentless cyberbullying, enough to potentially seriously affect someone’s mental health.
From the moment I arrived, I was criticized. I kind of expected some criticism. I was wearing the USA sash and there’s a lot of pressure that comes with that sash. In the pageant world, they call it “sash factor.” A lot of eyes are on you, as well as the cameras. Miss USA is a pageant that is known and watched by millions around the world, and so the representative for the US is usually a pretty popular contestant in the pageant world. There’s no flying under the radar when you’re Miss USA. It’s only fair to assume you’ll be one of the contestants that’s discussed frequently – both good and bad. In under a year I went from this 20-year old girl recently relocated from NYC trying to make it in Los Angeles with my 2007 Mazda CX7 taking me from point A to point B, to a 21-year old girl thrust into an international spotlight overnight where millions of people now knew my name and I was now inside a world of red carpets, interviews, and glamour. It’s a lot all at once.
My nail polish had already begun to chip once I arrived (I had not yet been introduced to gel manicures). I truly thought no one would notice on day 1. Besides, there are no judges on day 1. I planned on fixing it upstairs in my room later that evening. But I didn’t expect people were going to zoom ALL the way in on my hands in my photos online. Next thing I knew, my nails were being bashed and I was already being accused of being unprepared and unkempt. Great, if they’re going after my damn nails, they’re going to go after everything else.
Sure enough, the attacks about my physical appearance increasingly grew over the next few days. I would be spending 3 and a half weeks in Brazil competing for Miss Universe, and this was just the first week. How the hell am I going to keep my sanity enduring all of this for another 2 and a half weeks?, I thought. I knew I was thin. I knew I looked awful. What I didn’t know was I was sick, and I wouldn’t find that out until two years later. But I wanted that crown. I wanted it so bad I used to practice posing in the shower. I had finally made it to Miss Universe. 1st runner up at Miss Teen USA, winner of Miss USA 2011, and now I was here at the grandest international pageant and this wasn’t going how I had hoped. I went from being supported and loved to being hated and criticized heavily on my appearance. It got to the point where it felt like people truly wanted me to drop out and not waste my time anymore, or not continue to make an embarrassment of myself, of the Miss Universe Organization, and of the US.
I hated meal times at Miss Universe. I could tell the other girls were watching me. I ran for the carbs, rice, and ice cream while they noshed on much healthier options. I could only manage a few bites before my brain would tell me I was full. Everyone looked at my half eaten plate and I just wanted to curl up and hide. And that was just the tip of the iceberg.
“Miss Anorexic USA.” “Miss Joke USA.” “Miss Embarrassing USA.” Those were just some of the names I was being called online. These were actual comments left online for me to see (and are still online to this day): “Who should be blamed for her anorexic look???” “FROM REDHEAD BARBIE TO BROKEN ASS SKINNY DOLL!!” “Her face looks like Skeletor.” “She needs to eat a cheeseburger… or three.” “Alyssa Campanella – a tragedy!” “It’s sad to see someone like Alyssa wasted all her potential.” “She left many fans disappointed of what happened in Brazil.” “The Alyssa that I like is dead….” “She starved herself on purpose to sabotage her chances.” “How could she show up to Miss Universe like that? She’s so unattractive.” “She is the kind of beauty queen who disappoints almost everybody.”
Then came the more direct messages, which were all the same as above and more but the only one that sticks out to me to this day was the one where I was sent a photo of my head Photoshopped onto a skeleton with the caption, “This is you.”
I was done. Done. I didn’t want to compete anymore. I felt completely defeated. I felt like a joke. I felt like I had let everyone down. To top it all off, I ended up catching the flu while in Brazil and needed to be hospitalized before the telecast. My hospitalization only added to my misery.
I didn’t feel beautiful or confident during the preliminary show. I knew from the moment I emerged in my swimsuit that I was utterly and completely damned. After the swimsuit competition, I expected I would be tortured even more online, and I was. I was desperate. I had spent so much time trying to push my belly out to try to hide my ribs and visible hip bones that I was starting to be in pain. I was hated, and all because of something I couldn’t explain. This wasn’t the Miss Universe experience I had dreamt of. This didn’t feel like a dream at all anymore, but a nightmare.
In my interview with the judges, I was asked how I expected to be a role model because of my body type. Welp, that’s the end of that. They clearly won’t vote for me now, I thought. I still answered the question. I told them I hoped to be a role model based on how I applied myself as a person. Body types can change, but there’s only one of you in this world. Make it count. And that’s when I decided to practice what I preach. The staff at the Miss Universe Organization saw what was being thrown at me online. They put their arms around me and encouraged me to fight on and to keep competing. They reminded me of the confidence I had at Miss USA and to use that onstage. They had a point. If I left, the haters would win. I wasn’t going to let that happen. My name is Alyssa Campanella and I deserved to be there. So I stayed, even if I just expected to clap.
But I didn’t clap. To my surprise, I made the top 16 at the final show. I exclaimed in both confusion and excitement, smiled for the cameras broadcasting this event around the world, and went to stand in my semifinalist spot. “What the?” is what went through my mind. Perhaps I impressed them with my answers in interview after all? I don’t know. But the next round of competition was the swimsuit competition, and I knew I wasn’t going to make it past that round. Not with that body. Sure enough, I did not make the top 10, but I was proud and happy to have made the top 16 out of 90 countries.
Unfortunately, not many shared in that pride or happiness. The attacks continued. “She looked lost! I seriously believe she was hand-picked by the MUO to make the cut, she could not make it on her own, srry!” “She stole a spot from someone more deserving.” “Alyssa had no business in that top 16.” “She didn’t earn that spot – she was a sympathy vote.” “How could they have allowed her into the top 16?” “She was only put in because she’s USA.”
I began to believe them. I basically started thanking people for putting me in there just to make me happy. It got so bad that the president of the Miss Universe Organization sat me down a few weeks later and said, “We didn’t put you in that top 16. You earned it. The judges saw something in you. Just thought you should know.” Let’s just say that moment made me extremely emotional. I still get emotional when I think about it.
Flash forward two years, I finally meet the gastroenterologist that would basically save my life. He performed an endoscopy that answered A LOT of questions and solved several mysteries. Not only do I naturally have a fast metabolism, but I also suffer from GERD, a hiatal hernia, and gastroparesis, all of which explain why I can only eat little amounts at a time and why gaining weight for me is difficult. My stomach doesn’t drain properly, and because of that it tells my brain I’m full after only a few bites. Add huge amounts of stress to all this, and well, you’ve got what happened to me at Miss Universe. Honestly, had we known much sooner what was going on, things would have been a lot different. A lot different. I could sit here and “what if” all day, but I firmly believe things happen for a reason. After some medication, a special eating plan, muscle building, and years of therapy later, I’m happy to say that I’m finally at a much healthier place. In September 2011, when I competed at Miss Universe, I weighed 101 pounds (45 kg). Today, in May 2021, I now weigh 128 pounds (58 kg).
So what’s the point of this post? Right now, 90 women are about to have the week of a lifetime as they compete for Miss Universe. But let’s not forget these women are human beings. They have feelings too. They’re excited and happy to be there. Some spent 20 hours on a plane. Some spent 2 weeks in quarantine before being able to come. Some can’t have their families there due to costly travel restrictions, so they’re flying solo with not much support. They’ve worked really hard waiting for nearly a year for this moment, staying in competition mode for months not knowing when the event would actually get to take place. It honestly all sounds physically and emotionally exhausting if you ask me. And as they spend the next week in Miami, it’s only natural for them to see the comments being posted on their social media platforms as they post photos from their experience. So do me and them a favor – be respectful and be kind.
In truth, this post goes beyond Miss Universe. It goes for everyone across all social media platforms. Instagram has become a social media powerhouse, with people posting photos of themselves for fun or promotion (hey, I’m guilty of it), opening up the door to some criticism. And throughout this pandemic, thanks to home quarantines and social distancing, we find ourselves online a lot more these days to pass the time. We also find ourselves a lot more opinionated. But there’s one thing that hasn’t changed since 2011 – Cyberbullying is never okay. There’s a difference between criticism and just downright bullying/trolling. And don’t forget that common saying, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” No one can tell you what to think, only your conscience can, but you can control what you say online. It’s easy to sit back on your computer or phone and post comments anonymously from behind a screen, but if you were face to face with that person, especially someone you don’t know, would you still say it to them? I honestly doubt it. You don’t know what a person is going through.
Cyberbullying can lead to severe mental health disorders, psychological and emotional trauma, self harm, and suicide. It took years of intense weekly therapy to help me overcome the damage that was done thanks to so many online trolls. I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror and see someone beautiful for a very long time. I felt like I would forever be known as Miss Anorexic USA. I still feel that way. And while I’m finally at a healthy weight and on the right medication for my many stomach conditions, I still suffer from body dysmorphia. Now that I have visibly gained weight, I have several people harassing me online, frequently asking if I am pregnant because I look puffy and chunkier. They’ve also been very quick to point out any visible cellulite. If I’m thin, I’m anorexic and if I gain weight, I’m pregnant or have a health problem. It started getting to the point where I began some negative behavior about my body. My beau noticed this behavior right away and helped me work through it. But even after all this time, comments about my body can still lead to negative thoughts. I really don’t want to keep going down that road.
Bullying goes beyond physical appearance though. For the last two years, I’ve been continually labeled a whore online, all because I moved on after my divorce. There have been no consequences for my ex to move on because “boys will be boys.” But a lot of these misogynistic comments have unfortunately come from other women, all because I have found happiness again, and they were damaging. I plan on talking about this more in the future, but in a separate post since it’ll also be a bit of a lengthy read on its own.
Words have power. Names have power. There’s a line in the latest Cinderella film where Fairy Godmother says, “Names have power, like magic spells.” That line couldn’t be more true. Miss Anorexic USA. Whore. When it happens enough, over and over again, you start to believe them. You start to feel like that’s the only way people see you, and it destroys you, piece by piece, as you crumble and reduce yourself into this creature that they’ve created. And because of all that, during the summer of 2019 I contemplated suicide.
I’ve shared this before, but I will share it again. My mom used to tell me the story of a boy whose mother made him hammer a nail into their fence every time he would bully someone. Eventually the fence became filled with nails. His mother told him that if he apologized to each person he bullied, he could remove a nail. Over time, nail by nail, they were removed. Ultimately, the nails were gone but something else remained – the holes. Those holes symbolize that while you can say you’re sorry, you can never take words back. The damage has already been done.
Words can linger with people for years. Decades. For the rest of their lives. I’m sure someone will try to argue and say you can at least delete social media comments, but that doesn’t change the fact that the words were still said. As we navigate the ups and downs of the ever-changing internet, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded that there’s another human being behind that screen – a human being with feelings. We’re not robots. If you wouldn’t want someone saying certain things to you, you shouldn’t say it to someone else.
Be kind to one another. Look out for one another. And stay safe.
If you know someone or if you are suffering with a mental health disorder, eating disorder, or contemplating suicide, please know that you are not alone. I sympathize with you. I feel for you. Below are some incredible organizations and hotlines that are ready to help you, talk with you, and guide you towards recovery.