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On January 30th, a new Miss America will be crowned. She will be the 89th woman chosen.  It has been said that other pageants look for a model, but the Miss America Pageant looks for a role model.

The women who become Miss America are so much more than the stereotype. They have a dream and the drive to achieve it. Disciplined about doing what it takes to reach their goals, their passion, persistence and resilience push them past obstacles and help them deal with adversity.   These women turn out to be not just pretty, but pretty smart!

For my award-winning book, Pretty Smart: Lessons from our Miss Americas, I met with twenty-two of them in their homes, at their offices or over lunch, in places like Memphis, Denver, Louisville, Los Angeles, Birmingham, Philadelphia, Santa Fe, St. Petersburg and New York

In person, they shatter the “it’s only a beauty contest” perception with their intelligence, thoughtfulness, poise and eloquence. As Frank Deford, the award-winning Sports Illustrated writer and four-time Miss America judge, says in his book, There She Is: The Life and Times of Miss America, “No matter how many times it happens, the press finds itself surprised every time a beauty pageant winner is something other than a classic dumb blond.”

The Pageant, started in 1921, evolved from just a beauty contest into one that strives to provide opportunities for young women to stretch themselves in many directions. In 1945, Bess Meyerson was the first Miss America to receive a scholarship. As today’s largest provider of scholarship assistance for young women in the world through both the national, state and local chapters – over $45 million of in-kind scholarships in 2009 – it requires that the contestants be competent, curvaceous and directed, even though others may disparage the role.

Many people don’t see beyond the swimsuit competition. They think you can’t be beautiful and smart. This complicated mix of beauty and brains has always been a contradiction in American society, which often dismisses the possibility of being both. It takes guts, creativity, endurance, lots of plain hard work and a fire in the belly to achieve that pinnacle of femaleness.  Contrary to popular opinion, the Miss America Organization had a liberal feminist agenda years before Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique in 1963. The Miss America Organization promoted higher education for women starting in the 1940s when women in aprons were more the norm than women in business suits. Tens of thousands of young women, who participated in the pageant system at the local, state and national level, have acquired the means to get a college education and have enhanced their skills.

Mostly small town girls with big hearts and big dreams, they see the Pageant as an opportunity to actualize a larger vision for themselves. Being Miss America provides them with a platform to achieve their dreams of a higher education, access to a broad audience to promote a social cause and exposure to people who could help them get where they wanted to go. Rarely is the crown an end in itself. And, as for smart, most of them were or become graduates of the finest colleges and universities in the United States, including Harvard, Stanford, Northwestern, Skidmore and Virginia Polytechnic University. Their ranks include magna cum laude graduates and Rhodes Scholar finalists. In 1974, a law student crowned a Ph.D. candidate. And then, they go on to make a difference.   They serve as role models for all of us.

In order to interview Ericka Dunlap, for my book, Pretty Smart: Lessons from our Miss Americas, I had to practice my own lesson in persistence. It had taken weeks to finally connect and arrange a date to get together for me to interview her. And then, it was like a trip my husband and I took to Shiprock, NM, when, though we could see the final destination, we couldn’t figure out how to get from here to there.  I had to stop twice at other hotels to finally get to the Renaissance Hotel near the Philadelphia airport where she and her husband were staying.  I parked and was in panic mode, trying to make my recalcitrant recorder work, when my cell phone rings.  Ericka was calling to tell me that she would be ten minutes late, having been out on an errand. 

I sit in the lobby of the hotel and watch the glass automatic doors hiss open and close as people come and go for almost a half hour. 

Me with Ericka Dunlap Miss America 2004 and her crown

Me with Ericka Dunlap Miss America 2004 and her crown

I know what she looks like having studied her pictures on her professional and wedding websites.  So I recognize her as soon as she walks through the hotel doors.  She is lovely, her skin a smooth chocolate brown.  She is a little taller than I am with a slim but lush figure.  Dressed in cropped pants and a green sleeveless top, she apologizes as soon as we greet and hugs me.  Her husband of two months is with her.  I’m relieved when she suggests we go up to their room where they have a suite and we can chat in privacy.

I ask her why she is in Philadelphia and staying so out of the way.  This is a business trip for her husband and as a newlywed she doesn’t want to be away from him for long.  Her manner is easy and open just like her Miss America sisters and she laughs a lot.  I am stuck by the difference I feel in the level of maturity between her and some of the other Miss Americas.  But she is only 25 and still finding out what it means to find her way in her post Miss America years.  She is clearly more mature than most her age and even those several years older.   Though she feels more unformed than the others, and testing the limits of her own power, clearly her experience as Miss America has matured her beyond her very young years.

For more than two hours, she regales me with stories and thoughtful responses to my many questions.  She makes me laugh with her infectious personality.  At the end of our interview, I ask if we can have a picture together, as I always do.  Before I can say great, she pulls out her Miss America crown and plops it on my head.  My nano-moment of being a member of America’s royalty makes me giddy with glee.

I recently saw Ericka in New London, CT at the Garde Art Center, where she was hosting the Miss Connecticut Pageant.  I got a warm and enveloping hug beyond my expectations.  She told me how much she had enjoyed Pretty Smart, that I had gotten her voice right and she so appreciated that I portrayed her and her Miss America sisters in such a positive light.  I was so happy to see her And that night, she keep the crowd charmed end engaged for three hours.  My first impressions were right.

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