Did you know that Ms. America 2018 Brittany Wagner is on a mission to raise diabetes awareness as she travels and makes appearances this year? While she doesn’t live with diabetes herself, this twenty-something knows the seriousness quite well, as her father lived with type 1 for over three decades before passing away in part from long-term D-complications a decade ago.
With this year's Diabetes Awareness Month focusing on family, it's fitting that Brittany has been especially active speaking out in November and throughout the year.
Growing up in California, Brittany began competing in pageants at age 11, and has taken part in dozens of local, state, regional, national and international events over the years before her most recent victory in the legendary Miss America contest – designed for women 26 years of age and up.
You might also recognize her from her professional acting and modeling career. As a graduate of the New York Film Academy, she’s had roles in Fatal Instinct on Showtime, Entourage the Movie and the 2018 film Bachelor Lions, as well as cheerleading for the Los Angeles Clippers and Ontario Fury. She’s left the acting world in LA behind for a real estate career in northern Wisconsin, and since her dad’s death a decade ago she's been carrying a passion for diabetes, spreading the word through her pageant work and volunteering for the ADA.
We talked with Brittany by phone recently, and today we’re excited to share our interview with her:
An Interview with Miss America 2018 Brittany Wagner
DM) Thank you for taking the time to talk, Brittany. Can you start by sharing your dad’s story with us?
My dad, Randy Wagner, was diagnosed with type 1 when he was 21 and he died at age 55 in 2008. It was pretty late when he was diagnosed, so he didn’t deal with it the way he should have. He just didn’t talk about it or share. It was at the point where on my parents’ wedding day, his sister came up to my mom and reassured her about taking care of him with his insulin shots and all of the diabetes tasks and everything. My mom was like, “What are you talking about?” She didn’t know until their wedding day that he was living with type 1. That’s the level of secrecy and denial that was happening.
Anyone else in your family living with type 1?
There is a cousin on my father’s side who also has type 1, but that’s it as far as we know. This is such a family disease, and I think that’s why it is so important that there is a level of support for everyone to get on board, so the person living with this doesn’t have to be embarrassed or in denial. That’s something my dad didn’t have, and I think one of the things we missed as a family is that he didn’t get educated on type 1 early on -- mainly because he didn’t want to.
You mentioned he suffered diabetes complications?
He had been losing his sight, first on one side and he went through Lasik and got his vision back. Then he started losing feeling in his fingers and toes from neuropathy, fell down the stairs and broke a foot because he couldn’t feel the step down, and ended up losing his driver’s license as a result of that. So at age 16, I ended up driving him around for four years to do all of his business while I was in high school – it was hard at the time, but looking back it was something I’m glad I did and have the memories of.
Did the two of you talk about diabetes during that time?
Not directly, but as all of this journey was happening, I started going to the doctor’s office with him and started learning more. I don’t think he was getting the resources he needed, to find out more information about diabetes or how he could make his life easier in different ways. For example, things in the house like a larger channel-changer, which seems simple but would have made it easier and not as frustrating for him watching TV at night. Those things to help him feel more normal, at that point in his diabetes journey. Maybe if there was a support group, someone could have helped him get on the right track and prolong his life a little bit longer.
And he eventually went into a coma?
Yes, the year before he passed, he went into a diabetic coma. He came out of that, and then had a heart attack at the end. When he passed they told us it was a heart attack. My reaction was: “There’s nothing wrong with his heart, he only has diabetes, what are you talking about?” I didn’t understand it at the time. Now I do, and realize the effect it can have and how you can have a healthy life if you take care of yourself and make diabetes priority. I wish he would have had the help to do that.
Let's shift gears for a minute to talk about you: what led you to the Midwest?
What took me from LA was that my boyfriend and I decided to buy a house and move here, as he’s from this area before moving to California for work after college. We met there, and he said we could move to Wisconsin and buy a house on a lake to build our life together. I’m super happy now that I’m in the Midwest and it’s so much less expensive compared to the rent in LA, except that it’s much more difficult to be healthy here compared to California – there isn’t as much walkability, the winter weather takes everyone inside, and there isn’t as much choice for healthy food. That’s ironic, given a big part of my mission is to teach people how to eat healthier. So that has been my biggest challenge.
What about your modeling and acting career?
I acted, modeled, danced and cheered professionally for 10 years. That’s what my dad stopped paying for medication for, so he could support my dream! We learned after his death, that instead of paying for his health insurance and being able to get his insulin and supplies, he stopped receiving those things to put money toward me pursuing my career in Los Angeles. That was really hard at the end, because I didn’t know that was going on, and it seems like it was him giving up on his health to give to my future. I don’t think that was necessary, and maybe could have figured something else out had I known about it.
I don’t have any plans with acting or modeling now because there is no industry in Wisconsin, and that world was a lot darker than I ever knew, which didn’t end up aligning with my morals. I left that business ultimately because of that. However, I do still direct beauty pageants and coach contestants and plan to continue that. I was the Miss California United States Director for 2018, and plan to do more work like that in Wisconsin now.
What is your main profession these days?
I am trying to build a real estate career, which is quite interesting being in Wisconsin. I am learning a lot about lakefront property instead of ocean-front, and the market differences in this rural part of the Midwest. It’s quite the difference from LA and anywhere in California.
It’s actually interesting, in that my father was born and raised in Michigan and I never thought I’d be living somewhere in the Midwest so close to that. But it’s fitting, in that I am doing all of this in his honor. Now I’m near where he grew up, in Buffalo (in southwest Michigan), and that feels like it’s supposed to be.
Can you tell us a bit about your pageant journey?
I was born and raised in California. My pageant career started when I was 11 and have done competitions at every level locally, statewide, nationally and internationally. I acquired the title of Miss Wisconsin in 2017, right when I moved to the state in December. And then I became Ms. America in March 2018, so I have the national title which is cool because I can go anywhere and talk about my platform on diabetes or anything.
Pageants are focused on platform-work so it’s about working in the community. Each participant takes on a particular issue to champion, and over the years from age 11-20 I didn’t really have a connection to diabetes that I knew about. My dad didn’t really tell me or share much on that. So I worked with organizations in cancer, heart, brain injury and other conditions.
After everything happened with my dad, I decided diabetes was my calling in this area. That was particularly hard, as I was competing for Miss California at the time, and you got judged in that pageant about the work you did in the community on one particular platform and how personal your story was. So I knew it was now or never in choosing this, and went for it. There was a lot of crying in the first couple years telling my dad’s story. I still find myself getting emotional.
So advocacy is an expectation of the pageant world?
Not exactly. There is no requirement for what I have to do, it’s more what I can do. I don’t have any budget, and it’s a misconception that we just travel around for free. Anything I do I on my own dime unless I get sponsors, and that’s just not what the ADA is able to do. So I really try to limit my appearances to more places that I travel locally to in the Midwest. It’s not as glamorous as you might think.
When did you start working with the American Diabetes Association?
That happened in 2010, after I chose that platform in the Miss California competition. This is my passion now and they really took me in, and have been able to do so much through various pageant titles. That was with the Los Angeles ADA chapter, and once I came to Wisconsin and reached out, they told me they really needed volunteers to help out. There’s a huge Native American community that needs diabetes resources, so that is a big focus here.
What is your main messaging about diabetes?
I’ve been trying to raise awareness about the impacts and all the resources that are available for those living with diabetes. I’m trying to encourage those people living with it, and their families, to not be in denial and make it a priority. You can live a very healthy life if you aren’t afraid, and this isn’t something to be afraid of.
I try to teach those lessons at schools to kids, and in different places around the community. I share my personal story and talk with families. My focus has been largely type 1, but also type 2 because there is such a need for more information out there on that. I also do other activities during the year, such as Step Out Walk and educational conferences to talk about diabetes through the Midwest.
How did you get involved in helping the Native American population with diabetes in northern Wisconsin?
The ADA mentioned that as an important issue when I reached out to them. I didn’t know much about Wisconsin in general, but particularly how large of a Native American population is here in this part of the state and how much diabetes is a part of their lives. The ADA says that nearly 16% of people with diabetes are American Indians or Alaskan Natives, and that is primarily type 2 diabetes. With proper education and resources, we can lower that statistic. We’re working to bring more resources and education to schools on or near reservations, about preventing diabetes and what to do once they have it as far as management.
It sounds like you’re doing so much in your dad’s honor… what else would you want to share with the community?
I think with awareness, we need to make it not as taxing emotionally. When you’re in denial and not managing diabetes, simple things seem so much more difficult. I try to emphasize that when I’m out speaking, to make it fun and not so serious all the time. One of the things I did for my dad was to put notes around the house in different drawers or cabinets to encourage him and remind him how much I love him. Maybe that was too late for him, but that’s something I think we can do more of in the community for people.
I think that psychosocial support is so important. Being a beauty queen who shows up with a crown and sash at the events, it adds a little bit of a lighter more upbeat aspect for people. It’s encouraging people, and can be seen as a bright light for them. I try to bring some happiness to the events I go to, and try to connect with people in that way.
Thank you for sharing Brittany, and for using your platform to do good. Your dad would surely be so proud knowing that you're making such a difference in people's lives.