It may sound odd to consider a beauty pageant as a runway for self-care and healing. But for Juri Watanabe, who graduated from UCLA in 2018 with a degree in international development studies, it was.

As a contestant in the 70th Miss Universe pageant held Dec. 31, 2021, in Eilat, Israel, Watanabe chose a platform — or cause — with personal significance: ending the stigma surrounding mental illness. And the UCLA alum, who represented Japan, hopes to use her time in the spotlight to continue helping others.

Competing in the pageant not only gave her a chance to highlight the importance of mental wellness, it also allowed her to meet all kinds of inspiring women.

“Ive been drawing inspiration from my Miss Universe Japan director, Hiroko Mima, and female founders, CEOs and mothers I met on my tour around Israel after the competition,” Watanabe said. “They are all high-achieving individuals with amazing character, despite having to overcome many unfair expectations society places on women. They showed me how truly strong women are.”

She also has a role model closer to home. When her mental health began to suffer during her third year at UCLA, she looked for ways to implement self-care practices into her routine, including the university’s therapy services. Her mother, who Watanabe describes as a strong immigrant woman dedicated to supporting her family, suggested she explore pageant competition as a way of helping others while helping herself. 

The suggestion was spot on. Competing in the pageant also allowed Watanabe to address the relationship between cultural identity and mental health. As a multiracial Asian woman, she revealed how she has been affected by systemic racism. 

“As I was doing soul-searching when I was struggling with mental health, I realized that I’ve always felt like I didn’t belong anywhere, because of the way I look,” she said. “I was always treated as ‘the other because I don’t look fully Japanese – I’m half Korean. And in Korea, I’m not regarded as Korean.

She experienced similar issues while living in China. And in the United States, she says, she was seen as “too Asian” to be considered American. So anywhere I went, even if I had my roots in that country, I felt like I didn’t have a community where I can belong,” Watanabe said.

Taking part in the pageant and meeting other inspiring women helped her cope with such identity issues — and more. She's now working to connect people in need of care with counselors in Japan, where people often avoid seeking treatment due to the stigma around mental illness.

The UCLA alumna also hopes to draw attention to the need for more Asian representation in media and cultural spaces. “I want more Asians to be able to identify or see themselves on the screen or see themselves represented,” she said.

With her sights set on these goals, Watanabe is looking forward to making the world a healthier place for all.