MADRID — Asked when she first realized that she was a girl, Angela Ponce answered with her own question: “And when did you first know you were a boy?”
After winning Spain’s national beauty contest last month, Ms. Ponce will become the first transgender woman to compete in the Miss Universe pageant. But she is also on a mission to challenge traditional concepts of gender and beauty, as well as to break down what she sees as unacceptable barriers in the fashion industry.
“Having a vagina doesn’t make a woman,” she said in an interview. “Even if many people don’t want to see me as a woman, I clearly belong among them.”
Ms. Ponce, 27, grew up in Pilas, a town in southern Spain where her father owned a bar that is now managed by her elder brother. Pilas was a conservative place, she says, where “there was nobody like me.” That extended to her school, which also set her apart, placing her in a group of children needing special care, alongside some who were dealing with family breakups or who belonged to the minority Roma community.
But her parents fought hard against any efforts to single her out, as well as against the derogatory attention and insults that she often received. When she was very young, she was encouraged by them to play with her favorite dolls and keep away from her brother’s football.
“The problems for me only started outside my home, at school and on the street,” she said. “My parents always supported me, but from the moment I was born, I felt that I was a public figure and that people somehow had the right to speak about how I was.”
Three years ago, after winning a regional beauty contest, she moved to Madrid to pursue her career as a model. At the same time, she also started collaborating with the Daniela Foundation, which was established by a Spanish woman who fought against the management of a school that did not want to recognize her daughter as a transgender girl.
As one of the foundation’s volunteers, Ms. Ponce gives talks in schools and meets with children and parents who are struggling with transgender issues. On one occasion, she said, she received a phone call in the middle of the night from a transgender girl threatening to commit suicide because of the social pressures.
When she was about 16, Ms. Ponce decided to undergo hormonal treatment and eventually vaginal plastic surgery, “to remove what for me was a burden and a trauma.” But she said that her message to the teenagers whom she now meets is always that vaginal surgery is a personal choice, and that it is not essential to being a woman.
“There are women with a penis and men with a vagina, because the only key part of being a woman is to be and feel like a woman,” she said.
Her recent success as a beauty queen has brought her admirers, but also plenty of attacks — mostly from other women, she said.
“What strikes me is that a lot of the criticism has come from women and people from my own collective, just when women are taking to the streets to ask for recognition,” she said. “I find it weird that some women don’t tolerate that I go to a competition to represent my country as the woman that I am.”
She added: “If we want progress, we just have to stop looking whether what other women are doing is good or not.”
Surprisingly to some, predominantly-Catholic Spain has led the way on several gender-related issues. In June, the country’s new prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, appointed 11 women as the heads of the government’s 17 ministries, the highest proportion among Western countries.
Under a previous Socialist administration, Spain also became in 2004 one of the first nations to legalize same-sex marriage. “Compared to other countries, I’m lucky to have been born here,” Ms. Ponce said.
In fact, she said that much of the recent social media criticism against her came from women overseas, who believe that she will have an unfair advantage over other national beauty queens when she participates in the Miss Universe pageant later this year. Apart from her genital surgery, Ms. Ponce said the only other procedure she has undergone was plastic surgery to enlarge her breasts, following her hormonal treatment.
“When I hear that all the girls won’t be competing in equal conditions, I say that’s right, but only because I’ve actually had to make double the amount of efforts to get there, because I wasn’t gifted everything by nature,” she said. “My face has always been my face, whether you like it or not, and the same for my waist.”
“Women own their bodies, and many of them have had plastic surgery, so how is reshaping your nose or your cheek bones to make you feel better any different to getting a vagina or breast enlargement?”
Ms. Ponce also lamented what she described as the hypocrisy of some big clothing brands that refused her as a model once they found out that she was transgender. “There are brands that are happy for you to buy and wear their clothing but not to have you on their catwalk,” she said. “It’s strange coming from a world of fashion that claims to be setting trends.”
The Miss Universe pageant was owned for almost two decades by President Trump. He sold the rights to the event in 2015 to WME-IMG, a talent agency, after NBC canceled its television contract with Mr. Trump amid an outcry over Mr. Trump describing migrants crossing from Mexico as rapists and murderers during his bid for the presidency.
During Mr. Trump’s tenure, the rules of the pageant were changed to allow transgender competitors, following a successful protest campaign in 2012 by Jenna Talackova, a Canadian beauty queen who had initially been barred from taking part in her national competition.
Guillermo Escobar, who is the president of Spain’s national beauty contest, acknowledged that Ms. Ponce’s win as a transgender candidate last month had helped raise the profile of the competition, but insisted that “the jury simply valued her as a great woman.”
“She is a pioneer, sending a message of equality and respect, but my hope is that we will eventually have many more candidates like her and this will no longer make the headlines,” he added.
During the interview with Ms. Ponce, her 19-year-old sister, Amanda, watched her intently and then took several close-up photos of her with her cellphone. “I can only be very proud of my sister,” said Amanda, who is a law student whose classes had just ended. “She’s worked very hard to get here, but I know she and all other women can get a lot further.”