Miss Illinois crowned Miss America

Sept. 22, 2002 at 4:20 AM
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ATLANTIC CITY, N.J., Sept. 22 (UPI) -- Billed as the largest competitive scholarship program for young women in the world, Saturday's Miss America pageant in Atlantic City crowned Miss Illinois, but everyone was a winner taking home at least $5,000 in scholarship money.

The crown, the job and at least $50,000 in scholarships went to Miss Illinois Erika Harold, 22, of Urbana, Ill., who graduated from the University of Illinois, Phi Beta Kappa. She was a University of Illinois Chancellor Scholar, a Truman Scholarship finalist and USA Today's All-USA College Academic Second Team.

Harold had been accepted this fall to Harvard University's Law School to pursue a career in the fields of Public Interest Law and Public Policy but she put law school on hold to compete in the pageant. Her platform issue was Empowering Youth Against Violence.

While in college Harold submitted written testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives' Energy & Commerce Committee on Welfare Reform Reauthorization Proposals. She was also the recipient of first prize in an Afro-American Studies research paper competition and represented high school in Japan as part of the JALEX Study Program.

While at the University of Illinois, Harold worked as a teaching assistant; motivational speaker and public relations coordinator; as well as television intern.

She sang an aria from Bizet's "Carmen," and was a favorite among the other contestants who were able to vote in the official competition voting.

Several contestants told co-host Julie Moran of "Entertainment Tonight," who served as backstage host and questioned the contestants about their thoughts on the five finalists' chances, that they were planning to vote for Harold.

The voting of the 46 contestants who did not make the finals counted as 10 percent of the official judging.

Her father, Robert Harold, is of Greek, German and Russian descent and is owner of a satellite installation company. Her mother, Donna Tanner-Harold, of Native American and African-American descent, is a college counselor and foster parent trainer.

She has three siblings: Alexandra, 20, Anastasia, 17, and Nicholas, 14.

First runner-up and winner of $40,000 in scholarships was Miss Alabama Scarlotte Deupree; second runner-up and winner of $30,000 in scholarships was Miss Oklahoma, Casey Preslar; third runner-up and winner of $25,000 in scholarships was Miss Nevada, Teresa Benitez; and fourth runner-up, winning $20,000 in scholarships, was Miss Maryland, Camille Lewis.

But everyone won something. The five semi-finalists took home $10,000 each in scholarships, fifteen in the preliminary round took home $6,000 each and the remaining 36 contestants took home $5,000 each.

However, there were numerous other scholarship categories such as "Quality of Life Winner" who took home a $6,000 scholarships or the "Eleanor (Big Mama) Andrews Scholarship for Performing Arts" of $2,500. In total, the amount of scholarship money won by the 51 contestants was $531,000 from the competition in Atlantic City.

While the scholarship money can be used for college, only a handful of contestants were under the age of 20, and a great many of the contestants were age 22 and instead of describing college majors they spoke of careers they wanted to pursue.

Miss America, a bathing beauty contest dreamt up by Atlantic City businessman in 1921 to extend the summer season past Labor Day, this time incorporated the Internet by having some of the estimated 20 million viewers vote for the winners of the "American's Choice" for the swimsuit, evening gown, talent and quiz competitions. They accessed ABC.com to indicate their preferences but those results were not included in the official judging.

In addition to a question asked by host Wayne Brady concerning their platform issue, the finalists were given a gameshow-style quiz with questions on American history and current events.

Also, using a variation of ABC's "Do You want to be a Millionaire?" the 10 semi-finalists were asked questions that their fellow contestants wrote.

The 10 semi-finalists were from Mississippi, Nevada, Oklahoma, Alabama, Connecticut, Texas, Massachusetts, Illinois, New York and Maryland.

This year's pageant was described as one of the most racially diverse with six contestants black and Miss Delaware, Shoha Kirti Parekh of Indian descent; Miss South Dakota, Vanessa Shortbull is a Lakota Sioux; and Miss Alaska, Peggy Willman, an Inupiaq Eskimo.

It was also the first time that the pageant host was black. Comedian and ABC talk show host Wayne Brady pointed out, "Yes, I am the host of the Miss America Pageant, and yes, I am black."

Brady serenaded Miss America 2003 with the celebrated, "There She Is, Miss America" theme but the program ran long and the TV audience did not get to hear much of it.

Less diverse was the talent competition. Twenty-one contestants sang, 15 danced and 12 played musical instruments. The only exceptions were: Miss Nevada who did a monologue, Miss District of Columbia who did gymnastics and Miss Montana who did Tae Kwon-Do.

For the entire week of competition in Atlantic City there was a single panel of judges and preliminary judging during the week counted for 40 percent of the contest.

The seven judges included: Donna Axum Whitworth, Miss America 1964, who has 39 years of experience in motivational speaking and college teaching; Jose Feghali, winner of the seventh Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, an artist-in-residence at Texas Christian University and James Matthew Jones, executive vice president of The Vaccine Fund, an independent organization whose mission is that every child have access to vaccines.

Also judging were: Tamara Haddad, veteran executive producer of news and entertainment and consultant to People Magazine; Gwendolyn Calvert Baker, Ph.D. a nationally known educator and activist; Evan S. Dobelle, president of the University of Hawaii and Kay Casstevens, deputy chief of staff for Maryland's Gov. Parris Glendening, who was assistant secretary of Education in the Clinton Administration.

(Reporting by Alex Cukan)

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