Shandi Finnessey ImageShandi Finnessey Interview by Chet Cooper

When 26-year-old Shandi Finnessey put on the $200,000 diamond and pearl Mikimoto crown to become Miss USA, she also put on the role of ambassador, with an invaluable opportunity to touch the lives of people around the world. The former Miss Missouri has visited the local heroes of New York City’s police and fire departments and traveled overseas to provide a morale boost to troops stationed far from home. She has used her persona to raise funds for charities ranging from the American Cancer Society to Derek Jeter’s Turn 2 Foundation (which helps at-risk kids choose healthier lifestyles). She has spent afternoons reading to elementary school children as well as visiting soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

With a background as a professional model, Shandi has graced runways, billboards, print media and television commercials. In her spare time she paints, knits, plays both the violin and piano masterfully, and practices yoga and meditation. She has even gone bungee jumping to conquer her fear of heights. An honors graduate from Lindenwood University in Missouri, Shandi completed her Bachelor of Science in psychology in just three and a half years. In 2002 she authored a children’s book, The Furrtails, which helps children appreciate individuality and understand their peers who have disabilities.|

Recently Shandi sat down with ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper to discuss her year as Miss USA; the growing pains she endured to get there; and her role as national spokesperson for breast and ovarian cancer education, research and legislation (the official causes of the Miss USA pageant).

Chet Cooper: I heard you received the Angel Award.

Shandi Finnessey: Yes. It’s a local award in Florissant, Missouri. Each year they find someone who is an angel in the community and who has helped to bring the community together.

CC: Well, congratulations.

SF: Another award I received recently that I am very proud of is the Ryan Brems Award, which had to do with the inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities. I didn’t learn the full story behind the award until I went to accept it. Ryan Brems was a young boy who had very severe mental and physical disabilities. He could not walk or talk, but he was mainstreamed into a typical classroom. Because of complications of his conditions, he ended up passing away. It wasn’t until the funeral that the parents of his classmates realized that he had disabilities. Their children would come home and talk about their friend Ryan, and what they did that day in school with their friend Ryan. The other children never felt it necessary to say that he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t talk or that he had a disability. They just saw him as a friend. Ever since he passed away, an award has been given to a person who has done a lot toward inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities. I was extremely honored to receive the award.

CC: What work have you done to further inclusion?

SF: I’ve done many things, such as job placement and mentoring. I wrote a children’s book entitled The Furrtails, which was published three years ago. The book talks about how we all have strengths and we all have weaknesses. These strengths and weaknesses don’t make one person better than another; they just make people unique and different. I’ve been doing a lot with the book with Special Olympics, the National Down Syndrome Convention, arenas like that. I also go into grade schools to share my book with students. I have been trying to raise awareness because I think the unknown is what scares people so much. They don’t know how they should interact with someone with a disability—someone who is different from them.

CC: Tell me more about your book.

SF: It’s about a family of rabbits called the Furrtails, and throughout the course of the book, there’s two...

CC: The Furrtails? Was it published by Playboy?

SF: (laughs) Yeah…the fur tails. (laughs) Throughout the course of the book, there are two rabbits, Sammy and Robby. Sammy, the older of the two, is not as quick and wise and smart as the younger rabbit. The younger, Robby, doesn’t understand. He’s thinking, “You’re my older brother. You should be able to do the same things I do.” In the story, Sammy winds up in a trap on Mr. Villman’s farm, and all of the rabbits have to use their special traits and skills to free Sammy from the trap. In the end, if even one of the rabbits, including Sammy, had not used his or her special skill, Sammy would not have been freed. After the story I help the students identify one thing they are really good at. They say everything from skateboarding to math...

CC: …to trapping rabbits?

SF: (laughs) Kids say some pretty cute things. Once we’ve talked about their strengths, I ask the kids, “What’s one thing that maybe you’re not so good at or that you need help with?” It takes them a while to start thinking, but then they start flowing with ideas. I hear some really interesting stories from the kids—one talked about his grandmother who used a wheelchair, and how he noticed she was treated differently and how that hurt him. It gets the kids to really recognize situations they’ve been in where people have been segregated.

CC: You wrote your undergraduate paper on androgyny [having both masculine and feminine characteristics]. What led you to that subject?

SF: I had the hypothesis that the more feminine in appearance a woman is, the more likely she is to receive assistance or help. I formulated this hypothesis because I looked much different in high school from how you see me now. I had a mullet, tinted glasses, acne and braces, and I was teased a lot. The teasing was so severe that I ended up transferring from a public school to a private high school.

CC: You could have changed the mullet, but the other things…

SF: (laughs) I did have to wait for the mullet to grow out, and that takes a little time!

CC: You mean you actually transferred because the school was so tough socially for you?

SF: It was difficult to focus on my studies. When you go to school and you worry about who is going to tease you and who is going to try to beat you up and things like that, it becomes difficult to focus. It was my decision; I went to my parents and said, “I’m not getting the education that I think I need. I need to move into a smaller school.” I actually moved to an all-girls school.

CC: A mullet-friendly school?

SF: (laughs) Yes, although I was teased there too. Being around the same people and seeing how I am treated so differently now—just because the contacts went in, the hair grew out, I put some Retin-A on and the braces came off—that was how I came up with the hypothesis that the more feminine in appearance a woman is, the more likely she is to receive assistance. I did a study four or five years back to test it, and when the results proved significant it was published in the SEPA Journal.

CC: How did you test your hypothesis?

SF: We took the same group of people and had them in three conditions: extremely feminine, extremely masculine and then androgynous. It was the exact same person, just different role-playing. The performers didn’t just dress differently, but also changed a few of their mannerisms. The difference in how they were treated was so drastic. We’ve always heard that people tend to judge a book by its cover, but my study was able to demonstrate it, and to [zero in on androgynous appearance as a factor, because using the same subjects eliminated other causes.]

CC: It would be interesting to replicate the study, but focus on the progression of age to see where the shift in attitudes begins to occur. Young children, as with Ryan Brems, often don’t see the differences, but at some point society begins to instill that negative awareness of being different.

SF: That’s a good point—that’s why I think it’s important to get the exposure out there to children. If they’re exposed to different situations, different people and different environments, then I think they’re more accepting in the long run. But if you keep them secluded in their own sheltered worlds, and then one day they are in an environment where they’re around something that is different from them, they’re not going to know how to respond or react. That’s how I developed this passion. During my undergraduate studies I was required to do an internship. They had a whole list of different places I could choose from, but...

CC: Wasn’t ABILITY listed?

SF: No… (laughing) Only one of the places paid any kind of stipend, and I was thinking, “If I’m working thirty hours a week, I’m getting paid.” My internship was with an assisted living program working with people with mental retardation and Down syndrome. I came into the situation thinking, “This will be easy, I’m getting paid. It’s like any other job.” Never did I imagine that I’d be uncomfortable.

CC: Why were you uncomfortable?

SF: When I first met a young woman I would be working with for the year, Amy, who was legally blind and had mild mental retardation, I put my hand out to shake hers and she just looked at me. I realized, “Wow. I’m in an uncomfortable situation. I’ve never been here before.” Throughout the course of the year, we became good friends. I helped her begin her own business recycling cans. She was so proud of herself! But what I gained from her was huge. I saw her love of life. She was free of envy and jealousy, and she was so true to her emotions.

CC: What other projects or events did you work on during your internship?

SF: I started developing little socializing events such as Halloween parties and things like that. I would bring Amy and a number of other people with intellectual disabilities, and then see how other people—like my friends—who had never been in an environment with someone with a mental disability were taken aback and didn’t know how they should act. I realized that whenever we go outside of the box that we know, we get scared and don’t know how we should behave. So if we start at a young age with exposure, we can change that.

CC: You realize that’s what we’re doing right now, and it’s one of the purposes of ABILITY Magazine.

SF: Yes.

CC: How did you choose the Miss USA competition as opposed to Miss America?

continued in ABILITY Magazine subscribe

Miss USA

United Service Organizations

Read the rest of the interview with your order of ABILITY Magazine. Other articles in the Shandi Finnessey issue including - Letter From The Editor - Gillian Friedman, MD, Humor-Law Made Simple, Headlines - UCP Guide. DOL, DOJ, Cancer Breakthrough, Steel & Lace - Epilepsy, A Private War, Youth Conference - Cultivating Tomorrows Leaders, Fighting Back - The Importance of Self-Defense, Nat'l Council On Disability - Recommendations, Breast Cancer - Important Information, Christopher Reeve - His Work Lives On, Fashion - New Products and Events, United Nations Update - Back on Track, World Ability Federation, Events and Conferences...subscribe!

More excerpts from the Shandi Finnessey issue:

EEOC: Ensuring Freedom to Compete in the Workplace

Brittany Maier: A Gift of Music

Post Paralympic Games: Record Breaking Results

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