In many ways, Allison Kopach doesn’t seem like the sort of person who would feel self-conscious going out to run errands. The 31-year-old Michigan City native and former Mishawaka resident is, after all, an outgoing pageant queen who brought home the Miss American Beauties Plus title in 2011.
But in “There She Is,” a new documentary available online and slated to screen at the Indianapolis International Film Festival later this month, Kopach explains that, as a plus-sized woman, she feels uncomfortable leaving the house without doing her hair and makeup first.
“When I walk in I don’t want people looking at me like I’m not put together, because that makes me feel like I’m fitting into a stereotype, that I don’t love myself or take care of myself,” Kopach said. “So if I can eliminate any stares, any misconceptions, I almost feel like I need to do that for the plus-sized community.”
The documentary, which premiered online last month to coincide with Full Figured Fashion week, followed Kopach and her close friend Jenny Flores as the two prepared for the 2011 pageant. The filmmakers then checked in a year later as Kopach prepared to hand her crown over to the 2012 winner.
Kopach, who was a “pure little diva” growing up, says she always enjoyed watching pageants as a child. But for many years she felt that her weight — she was a size 20 when filming began — would keep her from participating in these sorts of events.
“I was always plus-sized growing up, so pageantry was something I watched on TV,” Kopach said. “I watched Miss America and she had all these wonderful things happening around her, and I knew at a very young age that that was probably not going to be me.”
Kopach got her first glimpse of the plus-sized pageant world after she was approached by a promoter during her freshman year at Columbia College Chicago.
“I was wearing my prom dress from the year before and I had no idea what I was doing,” Kopach said. “I met women that were like me, and at 18, 19 years old it was awesome because I had never met strong plus-sized women I could relate to.”
Kopach took an eight-year hiatus from plus-sized pageants, which are typically open to women who wear size 14 or larger. During her preparation for the 2011 American Beauties Plus Pageant, she was contacted by Emily Sheskin and Veena Rao, directors who were interested in a film that examined the way beauty is defined in the U.S.
The film shows Kopach and Flores at the pageant and Kopach being crowned. It also shows Kopach’s return to daily life in Indiana, where she found that remarkably little had changed.
“I had so many high hopes for how my life was going to be. I wanted to go out there and promote (the pageant),” Kopach said. “I did a lot of walks, I signed up for every activity I possibly could, and what I was finding was that a lot of people weren’t receptive. It’s almost like I wasn’t the type of influence they wanted to have at their organization.”
But almost two years after being crowned, “There She Is” is generating more publicity than Kopach’s win ever did. The documentary can be seen at pageantdocumentary.com, and more than three dozen media outlets have reviewed or commented on the film.
Some of the responses haven’t been entirely nice. There have been blog posts and Internet comments that criticize the documentary for glamorizing or “normalizing” obesity. Others take issue with beauty pageants in general, no matter what sort of women are competing. Kopach said she was particularly surprised by the people who bypassed weight entirely and left nasty comments about her eyebrows and teeth.
“I had not prepared myself for the negative comments,” Kopach said. “I don’t surround myself with people like that.
“I had a talk with the creators and directors of the documentary, and one of the things one of the producers said to me was that nothing you start that’s out of the status quo is ever easy, and I have the chance to become part of something that’s unique and new to society.”
Kopach stresses that she and the documentary makers are not trying to glamorize obesity. Both she and Flores have lost large amounts of weight since filming ended, Flores to alleviate asthma symptoms and Kopach to reduce her risk of developing diabetes.
“I didn’t want to lose weight just because I wanted to lose weight. I wanted to lose weight so that I could be healthy,” Kopach explained. “It’s a very fine line of loving yourself and thinking of what life could be like.”
And while she still hears from those who consider plus-sized beauty pageants — or any beauty pageants — “taboo,” Kopach said the overwhelming majority of responses have been positive.
“For every negative comment there’s been, there have been three more that say, ‘Thank you, I feel the same way you do, it’s nice to hear somebody actually say it,’ ” Kopach said.
Kopach said she has been approached by people who recognize her from the documentary and want to tell her how it changed their lives.
“A woman came up to me and asked if I was in the documentary,” Kopach recounted. “She said she walks a little bit taller because of it, and she’s starting to love herself a little bit more.
“And it started to make me cry, because that’s everything I wanted to do.”