The Miss South Carolina Pageant in the US state of South Carolina, this year features its first openly gay contestant, who tackled potential criticisms from onlookers by simply saying “this is me”.

Ana Louisa Valencia has attracted international media attention by being the first openly gay contestant in the competition which has run since 1937. She is also the first binational contestant, and has been hailed as the “new face of the South” by some.

She will compete next week against 48 other contestants, with the hope of winning the Miss South Carolina crown.

“Last year, I did compete at state, but I wasn’t as comfortable because of the fact I was hiding who I was,” said Valencia. “This is my first year coming out and saying, ‘This is me, girls. Sorry, I’m going to be changing in the same dressing room as you. This is what’s going to happen.’

“I’m the first openly lesbian contestant in the Miss America system, the first bilingual contestant we’ve had, so that’s good,” said Valencia.

With three previous titles already under her belt, Ms Valencia said her success would help represent the changing face of the US South, but that it had been met with criticism.

Ms Valencia’s mother, Hattie Palasox, asked: “Why should she not win… She’s got everything.”

“She’s a product of that change and it’s taking time for people to accept it,” she continued.

The contestant said her passion for coaching Special Olympic athletes was what she wanted the judges in the competition to remember, rather than her sexuality.

“If I bring back that crown to Spartanburg, that would be great, but if not, I did what the Lord had planned for me,” said Valencia.

The winner of the pageant receives a $25,000 (£16,700) scholarship, as well as the title of Miss South Carolina.