Breaking Stereotypes: first Central American Miss Universe champions mental health advocacy

If my life story serves as inspiration for women and girls around the world, let them take it as a bridge to better than yesterday, but not better than tomorrow.

  • 4 months ago
  • February 2, 2024
6 min read
Sheynnis Palacios is the first Central American to be crowned Miss Universe in 2023. She won at the Miss Universe competition in El Salvador. | Photo courtesy of Benjamin Askinas Sheynnis Palacios is the first Central American to be crowned Miss Universe in 2023. She won at the Miss Universe competition in El Salvador. | Photo courtesy of Benjamin Askinas
Sheynnis Palacios, first Central American Miss Universe winner in 2023
Journalist’s Notes
Interview Subject
Sheynnis Palacios Cornejo is a Nicaraguan model and journalist born in 2000 on Mother’s Day. She won Miss Nicaragua and then Miss Universe 2023. Sheynnis graduated with a degree in Social Communication from the Central American University while playing volleyball. Having been diagnosed with anxiety at 18, she now is a social activist for mental health advocacy and healthcare access. She launched a multiformat program called Understand Your Mind. She also leads community projects. Her future goals include studying audiovisual production and moving behind the camera, while continuing to advocate for mental health. She is also planning a second book and wants to create an animal rescue foundation.
Background Information
When Sheynnis Palacios won Miss Universe in November 2023, the government of Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega called it a moment of “legitimate joy and pride,” but then pictures arose online of her participating in anti-government protests in 2018 in which 355 protestors were killed. Since then, the Nicaraguan government announced that the Miss Nicaragua pageant director Karen Celebertti, her husband, and son are wanted on treason charges for also participating in the protest and speaking out online, calling it a terrorist action and a failed coup. According to Hola, Sheynnis is traveling the world as Miss Universe and has setup a homebase in New York City. She has been silent on the situation in Nicaragua. In November, the Nicaraguan government prevented Celebertti from reentering the country and later raided her home. Her husband and son were held for a month by the regime then given 48 hours to leave the country. The family is now together in Mexico.

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador ꟷ As a little girl, I sat down to watch who won the Miss Universe competition. The moment they placed the crown on the winner’s head, I thought, “I want to be like her.” A dream blossomed in my mind of standing on stage – a beautiful woman full of power and confidence, capable of meeting all the responsibilities of her role. In 2023, when I finally won Miss Universe, I felt shocked. It took me a week and a half to process that moment. Some days, I still ask myself, “Am I really Miss Universe?” It feels like I achieved the unattainable, and through it all, my inner child has come out to play.

Winning Miss Nicaragua and then Miss Universe, my multiformat project “Understand Your Mind” was born. Full of love and passion, “Understand Your Mind” is inspired by my diagnosis of anxiety at 18 years old. Using my platform as the host of a national television program, I felt responsible to share my experiences and bring truthful information about mental health to my audience. [“Understand Your Mind” airs on Channel 11 in Nicaragua and includes guests with expertise in mental health, accompanying women who grapple with anxiety and other similar challenges.]

Read more first-person accounts at Orato World Media from individuals navigating mental health challenges like OCD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Schizophrenia, and Hoarding Disorder. Scroll through the Health category to find more stories like these.

As I broached the Miss Nicaragua and Miss Universe pageants, I took a dramatic step away from tradition

My love for the stage began at a young age and there was never a time in my life, from preschool through college, when I did not participate in cultural events. Being on stage felt exciting, even if only for a few minutes. My first win came in the eighth grade at the age of 12. Soon after, a teenage beauty queen reposted a Tweet from my profile, and it felt like a divine sign. I wanted to shift from cultural events to beauty pageants.

I expressed my interest to my mom, but we faced serious obstacles. Between school tuition and meeting the basic food needs of our home, with no guarantee of winning, the financial challenges seemed insurmountable, but we persisted and found a way.

When I won the national Miss Teen 2016 pageant in Nicaragua and finished in the top five in an international competition, a sense of happiness consumed me. I continued competing as I neared the end of college and finally felt ready for the big stage, but I did something unusual. I cut my hair.

Already, I began to forge my own path – to spur a new trajectory and a new era for women competing in major beauty pageants. Surrounded by women with long hair and extensions, I wanted to be the first in Central America to win with short hair. Breaking a cycle and living the life of my dreams powered me through Miss Nicaragua and Miss Universe, and set the stage from my project addressing mental health issues in Central and Latin America.

From panic attacks to Miss Universe, I use my life story to inspire others

Competing in Miss Nicaragua, I felt surrounded by support from people who believed in me and never left my side, not for a moment. I felt that same support from people across my social media platforms and a deep appreciation for them arose in me. The motivation I got from my family and those watching from afar became like gasoline pushing a car 110 miles per hour down the highway.

When that power took me all the way to Miss Universe, it armed me with a sense of total commitment. As I prepared to go to El Salvador to compete, I told myself, “If you go, you go for your dreams, but you also bear a great responsibility to give the best of yourself. When you return to Nicaragua you will say, ‘I did it; I gave it my all and I am satisfied.’”

As someone who struggled with serious anxiety for years, pressure and frustration can be challenging, but the organization took charge and provided real support for me on the psychological side. They helped me manage my emotional intelligence by allowing my psychologist to accompany me throughout the process.

On two occasions onstage, I experienced anxiety attacks, but through preparation and support, I knew how to handle it. I felt very afraid about passing the round of questions, but I overame the impending anxiety crisis and learned, yet again, that nothing is impossible.

Winning the Miss Universe crown connected me with many people who not only see the sash, but who can understand how hard I worked to get here. I feel their empathy, and want to inspire girls through my life story – including my anxiety.

Miss Universe fights to break stereotypes around mental health

According to the World Health Organization, during and after the COVID-19 Pandemic, depression and anxiety rates skyrocketed, especially amongst women. Through the 2030 Agenda, I intend to work toward a more egalitarian society with respect for mental health. We need to comprehensively address this topic.

As someone who has struggled with anxiety and panic attacks, I know it can trigger chronic and terminal diseases and stunt our development at different stages of life. It’s not only women; the Green Wall Organization highlights that men and boys also fully feel the effects. For this reason, I am taking a whole society approach.

In moments like these, I truly feel like Sheynnis – a mature woman who worked hard for years and achieved her dreams through love, passion, discipline, and dedication. I often say, “We are what we attract.” If you surround yourself with good energy and healthy, positive people, it will help you forge forward.

I know negative comments exist about me but I have no time for it. Instead, I follow a strict agenda and I love my job. The greatest reward of becoming the first Central American Miss Universe in history is learning to accept gratitude and to continue creating safe spaces where we can discover solutions to our suffering. I will always fight to break stereotypes.

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