It took Caressa Cameron four tries to become Miss Virginia, but once she nailed the state title last year, it's easy to see how she went on to capture the glittery Miss America crown in Las Vegas on Jan. 30.
This was one poised, smart, candid and effervescent young woman who sat down to lunch in Washington Monday with a bunch of strangers, including several reporters and TV producers. Sure, she'd been in D.C. before, to sing the National Anthem at the Washington Nationals' season opener, where she shook hands with President Obama, and to serve as grand marshal of the Cherry Blossom Parade earlier this month.
But Monday's lunch was meant to showcase her in a far more intimate setting -- Cafe Milano's private dining room in Georgetown, and to once again remind those new to the world of Miss America and all its state and local pageants that it is not, not, not a beauty contest, because it provides $50 million a year in scholarships for women.
During the meet and greet, where surprisingly no handler hovered about monitoring her every word, Cameron, 22, answered all my questions except one: How much money she thinks she'll earn at paid appearances all over the world during her reign. "I'm not allowed to discuss it," she confided. But it is a sizable chunk of change, especially since the crown comes with an automatic $50,000 scholarship.
Cameron didn't blink, however, when I asked if she thought some day there might be a lesbian Miss America, given that so many other barriers have fallen since the first pageant was held in 1921 as an unapologetic beauty contest to lure tourists to Atlantic City in September.
Call it her reign of candor.
"I don't think someone's ethnicity, someone's religious background, even their sexual orientation has anything to do with their ability to do the job, so I would say yes. It has no bearing on whether they can go to a children's hospital and visit kids."
Cameron was also confident that the judges -- who this year included conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh -- would be willing to make such an equal-opportunity choice. "A lot of time we don't give people enough credit for being open-minded. If you are a judge doing your job, you will choose someone regardless of her political views or sexual orientation. You would hope people's prejudice would not play a role in picking someone for a job as wonderful as Miss America."
No surprise, then, that her platform issue during her Virginia pageant years -- which began at age 14 in the Junior Miss Fredericksburg contest and will continue as Miss A -- remains HIV/AIDS education and prevention for students in middle and high school. Having lost an uncle to AIDS when she was just 8, Cameron wanted a teenager's bully pulpit from which to reach kids who might not listen to adults.
No surprise either that during a public interview before her state victory last June, she declared that the separation of church and state trumped her personal religious belief that marriage should be between a man and woman. "But I don't believe we should legislate against gay marriage. One doesn't de-solidify the other."
That is what a modern Miss America, and a would-be TV anchor, sounds like.
I got my first glimpse into the parallel universe of pageantry back in 1986, when Miss A was still based on the Jersey shore (it moved to Vegas in 2006). It was from the contestants that I first heard of a profession known as "personal trainer," learned that the "girls" routinely used Preparation H hemorrhoid cream to deflate puffy eye bags, slathered Vaseline on their teeth for a shinier smile and kept their swimsuits from riding up by spraying their butts with the same stuff football players used to keep a grip on the pigskin. One contestant who failed to place in the top 10 that year revealed she'd blithely enthused to judges that "'the women of America are going to take the country by storm. There are 49 women running for office and by the year 2000 half of the people in medical, law and other professional schools will be women.' I don't think that went over to big," she said. I kept a close eye on the 1993 winner, Leanza Cornett, who broke new ground as an advocate for children with AIDS; she also broke the physical stereotype by being a petite brunette, not a statuesque blond.
Cameron, too, is a tiny and dark-haired, just 5-foot-4 and maybe a size 0. But she was also the only one at lunch who ordered two entrees, one of them a bowl of pasta. Although her family is still in Virginia, her only visit home since winning 10 weeks ago was at Easter, and she won't have another day off until Thanksgiving. She jokes that her base is "two suitcases and a carry-on bag."
Occasionally, however, her boyfriend, who coaches football and basketball at their old high school, and who gave her the dazzling crown pendant she wears -- it's made of crystals, not diamonds, she says -- will meet her for dinner if she is appearing locally. And might those evenings turn into conjugal visits?
"No, no, no, no."
Silly me. What ever was I thinking? Sex is so not part of the job.
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