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Pageants helped this autistic model become the activist she is today

Rachel Barcellona, a model and singer with autism, honed her social skills at a young age by competing in beauty pageants.

TAMPA, Fla. — In a recent commercial for Sephora, model Rachel Barcellona twirls in a field, walks across streets, poses in front of a mural and applies lip gloss. 

But while she smiles for the camera and strikes a pose, her narration takes an honest tone. She describes being diagnosed with autism at age three, and the bullying, self doubt and medical challenges that came along with her diagnosis. 

"I was bullied a lot, always being told that I was stupid," Rachel says in the ad. 

Then, she talks about how overcame those obstacles by finding her own beauty and confidence. 

It is that confidence that's gotten Rachel to where she is today.

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From a young age, Rachel was drawn to the limelight. She started competing in beauty pageants beginning at age 5 as a way to improve her social skills and meet female friends. She had to learn how to do things that didn't come naturally to her, like hold eye contact. 

"It's not just about dresses," she said. 

As she got older, her favorite part of the competition became the interview segment. She loved public speaking and sharing her point of view. 

A big part of her platform as a competitor was autism and advocating for others who have it. She started her own nonprofit, "Ability Beyond Disability" and took on leadership positions with organizations like SafeMinds and The Unicorn Children's Foundation. 

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Rachel, currently a student at the University of South Florida, hopes her message encourages other young women with autism to find their own confidence. 

"Believe in yourself and never listen to what society imposes on you," she said. 

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