Miss Spain Angela Ponce arrives in Bangkok. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

BANGKOK - Like many other contestants at the Miss Universe beauty pageant, Angela Ponce grew up watching the glitzy spectacle on television, dreaming of representing her country one day.

This year, her wish has come true, with Ponce making history as the first transgender contestant in the pageant's 66-year history.

"Trans women have been persecuted and erased for so long. I'm showing that trans women can be whatever they want," said Ponce, who was crowned Miss Spain earlier this year.

"I am proud to have the opportunity to use this platform for a message of inclusion, tolerance and respect for the LGBT+ community," she said in an interview in Bangkok, where the finale is to be held on Dec. 17.

The Miss Universe Organization, which owns the beauty pageant, lifted a ban on transgender contestants in 2012.

Miss Spain Angela Ponce displays her costume during Miss Universe National Costume Show in Chon Buri, Thailand Monday, Dec. 10, 2018. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

The competition airs in more than 190 countries, with an estimated half a billion viewers annually.

Picked by several online bookies as the favourite to win the crown, Ponce volunteers with a non-profit in Spain that works with children and families dealing with gender identity issues.

Transgender children often struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts, she said.

"I was born into a world, into a society which really wasn't prepared for me. I had the support of my family, but I still faced discrimination, and I had no role models," she said.

"So many children face discrimination for being different. It is important to tell them they have a right to be who they are, who they want to be," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation through an interpreter.