Alicia Machado, Miss Universe weight-shamed by Trump, speaks out for Hillary Clinton

Clinton made the former Miss Universe turned actor and activist a talking point of the first debate, criticizing Trumps public comments about her weight

Alicia Machado became an American citizen just in time to vote against Donald Trump. Its a vote that has been a long time coming.

In May 1996, the Venezuelan beauty queen was just 19 years old when she was crowned the winner of the Miss Universe pageant, which had recently been bought by the Manhattan business mogul. That year should have been one of sheer happiness and possibility for Machado, and for a moment it was. I remember I hug my mom and I tell her, now our lives is going to be changed forever, she told the Guardian in an interview in her adopted hometown of Los Angeles.

But when she put on weight soon after winning, Trump turned what should have been a golden year into the most traumatizing one of her life. It wasnt just that Trump shamed her about about gaining weight, calling her things like Miss Piggy and an eating machine. It wasnt even that he did so publicly. It was that he did it with the biggest audience he could find, in an attempt to sear her weight fluctuation into the public consciousness, forever changing how she would be remembered.

Then on Monday night, in a twist of cosmic justice, Trump now the Republican nominee for president was presented with a bigger audience for his comments about Machados weight than he ever could have imagined, or wanted.

In what has been billed as the most-watched debate in presidential history, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton made Trumps remarks to Machado a centerpiece of their first televised clash, citing the name-calling in particular, Trump calling her Miss Housekeeping in reference to her Latina origins as a prime example of her opponents demeaning views about women.

Trumps treatment of Machado reached its nadir in January 1997 when, having put the recently crowned Miss Universe on a stringent diet and exercise regime, he scheduled a trip with her to a New York City gym. There he blindsided her with dozens of cameramen, who gathered to film her jumping rope, lifting weights and pedaling a stationary bike. Trump cast himself in the role of disapproving dad, leaning over Machado as she hid her mortification behind a show of charms only the worlds top beauty queen could have mustered, laughing along with reporters and even once planting a kiss on Trumps cheek.

Alicia Machado of Venezuela reacts as she is crowned Miss Universe on 17 May 1996. Photograph: Eric Draper/AP

Although she appeared happy, smiling for the crowd of cameras as she dutifully skipped rope, she tells the Guardian she felt like a mouse in a cage, running endlessly on her fixed wheel for the entertainment of others. I was in some gym in New York like a mouse, she said. Look at that mouse: how she run, how she jump, how she make exercise. Like that. In that moment is when problems come to me and start.

The media loved the spectacle, and so did Trump, who didnt hesitate to pass out some memorable if fallacious tidbits himself. She weighed 118 pounds or 117 pounds and she went up to 170, so this is somebody who likes to eat, he said in an interview at the time. In fact Machado says she gained only a fraction of that weight but she didnt dare correct him; she was already frightened hed make good on a threat to strip her of her crown if she didnt follow through on the performance at the gym. (Trumps campaign did not return a request for comment.)

Machado never did lose her crown, but she lost her health for a time. Though she had never suffered from eating disorders previously, in the years that followed the ordeal at the gym, she struggled with anorexia and bulimia. It took five years before she was fully recovered, and longer before she could talk about what she went through. Now she hopes to use the insights gleaned to help teenagers struggling to love their bodies.

No matter what, no matter who tells you that you dont look good, that is only outside, she said, speaking partly, perhaps, to her younger self. You are more than some weight. You are more than some phase. You are more than if you are short or tall, or you are black or you are white, or you are skinny or fat or whatever. Your value is how you can work, how you can feel for the people around you.

She added: In this moment 20 years later, the only thing I need to say is Im a really happy person. Im a very successful person. I have my family, my daughter, my career, my dreams, my ideas. Referring to Trumps character, she said: And he cant be a president of the United States of America.

That Machado is thriving these days was readily apparent from where she sat in her publicists fourth-floor office in West Hollywood, and apparent in many different realms. She has traded pageants for success as an actor, starring in a string of telenovelas a childhood dream come true. She is also a successful businesswoman, with a line of products bearing her name. And she is the proud mother of a seven-year-old girl, whose privacy she fiercely protects; a question about whether she would encourage her daughter to compete in beauty pageants was met with stern disapproval.

More recently, she has added another title to her list of identities: activist. In June, Machado teamed up with civil rights icon Dolores Huerta in Virginia to join immigrant advocacy groups in encouraging Latinos to register and to vote for Clinton. She took her own advice to heart, too. On 19 August she became a registered US citizen, pledging in a post on Instagram to cast her ballot for Clinton. Later that month she traveled to Florida to lend her star power to a Clinton campaign drive to register Latino voters, posting video excerpts from the trip to social media accounts.

Her celebrity is at the nexus of two very important voter groups this election cycle, and they are groups overwhelmingly supportive of Clinton: women and Latinos. Both have been broadly insulted by Trump, who has called Mexican immigrants rapists and regularly refers to women as animals; Machado has the dubious distinction of being the recipient of both racial and gender-specific slurs, a powerful reference point that certainly isnt lost on the Clinton campaign.

Alicia Machado has seen first hand the dangerous impact Trumps hateful and divisive rhetoric can have on people, a Clinton spokesperson said of Machados involvement with the campaign. As a Latina, as a first-time voter and as a respected leader in the Latino community, Alicia has become an invaluable voice of our campaign to help mobilize Latinos against Trumps bigoted agenda and to educate the community about Hillarys plans to build a better future for them.

In the first presidential debate on Monday, Machados value could scarcely have been more evident. Clintons strongest moment in an already impressive debate performance arguably her strongest moment in the cycle came near the end when she seized on a question about what Trump had meant when he had said she didnt look presidential. Trump tried to deflect the damaging line of inquiry, saying he had actually been questioning her stamina. Clinton wasnt having it; and she used the concrete details of Machados story to pull him back in the ring of fire.

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David Hernandez