Focus on Miss USA: Miss Pennsylvania didn't have a traditional family

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One of the 51 contestants vying for the Miss USA title this weekend in Baton Rouge, La., will be West View native Valerie Gatto.

The 24-year-old graduate of North Hills High School and the University of Pittsburgh comes to the competition with an unusual back story and hopes her positive attitude combined with hard work and sacrifice will help to inspire others.

She says she was raised in a household filled with love and support but did not have the traditional family. According to the biography on Ms. Gatto’s website, her mother was raped at knifepoint and became pregnant. She kept the pregnancy secret until close to the birth and had planned to give up her daughter for adoption. But then her great-grandmother told her: “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” The single mother listened and decided to raise her daughter with the help of God and her family.

Ms. Gatto says she does not know her father.

She has found strength in her faith. “To me, God is my father,” she says. “I truly believe he put me here for a reason.”

Her mother told her about the circumstances of her conception when Ms. Gatto was 10, but the young girl did not share her story with others until high school. People were moved, and she realized that she could serve as a source of inspiration for others.

Ms. Gatto used her platform as Miss Pennsylvania USA to reach a greater number of people with her message of encouragement.

“I hope to empower people of all ages through my story,” she says.

Ms. Gatto’s road to the Miss USA pageant began when she was just 4. After receiving a direct mailer advertising a pageant in Pennsylvania, Ms. Gatto decided to enter herself into the competition. Despite her young age, she called up the pageant directly to register. Her first pageant, however, was not like the “Toddlers and Tiaras”-type of events shown on reality television, she says.

As she grew, she continued to compete in small pageants. While her classmates were interested in becoming police officers or superheroes, Ms. Gatto remained focused on one goal — Miss USA.

She was crowned Miss Pennsylvania USA 2014 last December.

Since graduating college, she has pursued acting, modeling and a marketing career. She starred in the independent film “Croaker,” which was shot in Canonsburg.

“Right now I am just focusing on Miss USA,” she says. She’s in Baton Rouge this week, touring the competition’s host city, which she calls the “Pittsburgh of the South” — people are nice, everybody loves sports, she said. It’s “a city where everyone is smiling.”

She added that the city has been very welcoming to those involved in the Miss USA competition. “I am excited to meet Mr. [pageant owner Donald] Trump,” she says.

The competition airs live on NBC at 8 p.m. Sunday from the Baton Rouge River Center. Viewers can take part in the telecast through social media on Twitter. During the evening gown portion, viewers will have the opportunity to save one of the remaining contestants from elimination by using the hashtags #SaveTheQueen and #MissUSA, along with a key word that will be shown on-screen.

Mary Hornak:

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