CUMBERLAND – One day in 2002, Tonya Hurteau was working at her computer when she suddenly realized she couldn’t see.
“My eyes just kind of went black,” she recalls. “I was thinking somebody turned the lights out.”
No one did. She was blind – at least temporarily.
Doctors were able to restore her vision with powerful medication that left a taste in her mouth that reminded her of aluminum foil. But they also figured out the problem was merely a symptom of a much more serious malady. She was suffering from multiple sclerosis.
And if it weren’t for that heartbreaking diagnosis, she almost certainly would have never become Mrs. Rhode Island US Universal, a bona fide, tiara-topped, beauty queen.
With six children and a husband at home, the diagnosis thrust Hurteau into a deep and long emotional funk that was as debilitating as the sporadic flare-ups of physical symptoms. She grew insecure and frightened about her ability to carry out her role as mother and wife.
She started entering beauty pageants because she thought it would be a good way to rebuild her confidence and self-esteem.
“I decided I wanted to do something to feel like a woman again,” she says.
For the self-described “girly girl” who likes fancy clothes and spangly jewelry, the pageant circuit seemed like just the balm her ailing spirit was yearning for.
In her first foray into the arena of glitz and gowns, Hurteau finished in the top 10 of the 2006 RI America Pageant. She’s been in more than a half dozen pageants for married women since then and, until a few weeks ago, she held the title of Mrs. Rhode Island United States for 2012.
When her reign ended, she automatically assumed the title of Mrs. Rhode Island US Universal. That puts her on track to compete for the national Mrs. US Universal title in Colorado later this spring.
Strutting her stuff on stage has proven to be all the good medicine Hurteau expected for her sagging spirits. Win or lose, walking across the stage in five-inch heels and a bikini to be judged on appearance and poise in front of hundreds of people can be a powerful adrenalin rush, she says.
But it’s not just about feeling good anymore, and even less about winning.
THERE ARE women, young and not-so-young, single and married, whom Hurteau refers to rather unflatteringly as “Pageant Pattys.” They enter pageants so often it verges on obsession, perhaps because they need the attention to fill some inner void.
For Hurteau pageantry has become a vehicle to call attention to the plight of those who suffer from multiple sclerosis and the search for a cure.
Thanks to her celebrity, she’s been asked to lend support to numerous fundraisers, festivals and special events designed to raise money for the Rhode Island Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and affiliated organizations that support research into the disease.
“For me it’s not about the attention that the crown and sash brings, it’s about bringing attention to my cause through the crown and sash,” says Hurteau. “I am able to become a role model for how to live successfully with MS.”
A Woonsocket native, Hurteau grew up on Sweet Avenue and got her first job in the former Dupra’s Bakery a few doors away from her home. She is a graduate of Woonsocket High’s School’s class of 1990 and is a professional headhunter by trade. She’s employed by Ranstad Sourceright, which is under contract to find high-skill workers for Honeywell’s safety products division in Smithfield.
From her physical appearance, you’d never guess Hurteau has multiple sclerosis or, for that matter, that she’s 40 years old, a little detail that slips out in the course of conversation.
A disease that afflicts the autoimmune system, multiple sclerosis wreaks havoc on the body’s network of nerves. It strikes victims with variable degrees of intensity and a dizzying range of horrific symptoms, from loss of balance and impaired vision to paralysis and muscular wasting. In the worst cases, victims embark on a steady trajectory of physical deterioration that leads, ultimately, to death.
Hurteau has a form of the disease known as “relapse remitting” multiple sclerosis, which means the symptoms come and go unpredictably. Stress can be a trigger. That’s why she avoids strenuous exercise, a feature of her lifestyle that makes one wonder how the petite brunette with blue-gray eyes keeps in pageant-perfect shape.
Intermittent or not, the symptoms do come, and when they do they are as readily apparent as those of victims who are tethered to a wheelchair. One of the most profound is a loss of muscle control that gives her a limp. During those episodes, she walks with the aide of a mechanical support that she affectionately refers to as her “Forrest Gump brace.”
Her body also has trouble with its internal temperature gauge and is particularly temperamental in hot weather. During last summer’s Las Vegas pageant, the oven-like atmosphere of the desert left her languid and dizzy, nearly forcing her to drop out of the competition. A fellow contestant persuaded her that staying in the competition would send the judges a message that part of Hurteau’s beauty comes from the inner strength she summons to deal with MS.
Later, that contestant, Michelle Buckley – Mrs. New Hampshire United States 2012 – ran a road race in her home state to raise money for MS research. She dedicated the effort to Hurteau and wore her picture on a T-shirt.
Today, Hurteau uses her notoriety as beauty queen to draw attention to the plight of those who suffer with the disease, but it wasn’t always that way. When she first entered the pageant circuit, she didn’t bring it up.
“I didn’t want the sympathy vote,” she says.
Likewise, when she first started dating her husband, Kevin, she didn’t bring it up, either. So she didn’t understand why he reacted so emotionally when she revealed her MS a few months into their relationship. That was when she learned for the first time that Kevin was practically orphaned as a child because his mother was stricken by MS so badly she was forced to live out her life in a hospital.
“He was one of three siblings who were placed in foster care because their mother had MS,” she says. “She was sent to live in Zambarano Hospital.”