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January 29, 2013

From Pageants to Politics

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Honolulu-based Cheape grew accustomed to the relentless travel necessary to succeed in the pageant system. As Miss Hawaii, she was expected to attend events all over the islands, her crown — stashed securely in a custom satin-lined wooden box — always by her side. One particularly exhausting day saw her up at 4 a.m. so she could make a jump-rope exhibition on the Big Island, then a children's charity event in Maui, followed by a dinner in Oahu. Stamina is key. "I can smile for three hours straight," she crows. "That's very helpful on the campaign trail."

Savvy contestants also learn how to parlay contacts they make along the way into career opportunities. Case in point: Miss America Erika Harold, an avowed conservative who spoke at the Republican National Convention a year after winning the crown in 2003. (She recently ran for Congress in Illinois but failed to secure her party's nomination.) And though the Miss America Organization itself is officially apolitical, its board of directors is stocked with well-connected politicos, including Sue Lowden (Miss New Jersey 1973), former chairwoman of the Nevada Republican Party; Kimberley Fritts, a veteran GOP operative who once worked for Florida Governor Jeb Bush; and Tammy Haddad, the one-time MSNBC executive who oversaw the network's political programming in Washington, D.C.

"If this is the last thing you do, you're probably not doing it right," says Tiffany Lawrence, 30, Miss West Virginia 2006, of participating in the Miss America Pageant. While traveling the state as part of her reigning duties, she kept running into Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, then the governor, at events. Manchin "really extended his hand and said, 'Let's talk about public policy issues and things affecting our state'" — guidance, she says, that helped her hone her message when she ran for the West Virginia legislature as a Democrat a year later. In November, she won a third term in office.

Two decades ago, Shelli Yoder was a 24-year-old pageant veteran when, as Miss Indiana, she belted out "This Is the Moment" from the musical Jekyll & Hyde, finishing as second runner-up in the 1993 Miss America Pageant. Afterward, she moved to Tennessee, did advocacy work for an anorexia-awareness group, and later married an Indiana University business school professor, with whom she had three kids. If not for the fact that in November she was a serious contender for Congress — handily winning her district's Democratic nomination (and even scoring an endorsement from Bill Clinton) before losing the general election — Yoder would have been yet another Miss America alum in a long list of them. Now she's starting to come across young Miss America wannabes eager to pick her brain. One beelined for her at a campaign event recently and told her, "I know who you are. You're my role model. I want to run for Congress. I'm just doing this to get some practice." Yoder couldn't help but be struck by how forward-thinking the girl was to embrace the obvious: Pageants make perfect political trial runs. Adds Yoder, "When people ask me, 'Did you know you wanted to go into politics when you were Miss America?' I say, 'Heck no!' But this girl was really bold in saying, 'This is exactly where I want to go. And as soon as I can.'"

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