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Here she comes, Miss America
The lights fell upon the stage of the Miss America Pageant as the adrenaline rushed through the glamorous contestants.
Hosted by Emmy-winner Tom Bergeron, star of ABC’s “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” the energetic crowd was filled with screaming fans from the east and west coast. Family members, friends and state supporters packed together with signs, banners, horns, buttons and t-shirts to support their favorite contestants.
“I see friendships, not rivalry’s here,” Bergeron said. “Tonight’s not just about one girl, it’s about every girl in the state.”
Donna Axum, Miss America 1964, said she returns to the pageant year after year because it means so much to her. She said her advice to college students is to “stay extremely focused on your goals and professional ambitions. Reach for the stars.”
The engaged couple Ryan Sutter and Trista Rehn from ABC’s “The Bachelorette” hosted a viewing party from Colorado. American Idol’s chart topper Clay Aiken kicked off the evening by singing his hit single, “This is the Night.”
The 51 contestants waited on the bleachers in black gowns, with anticipation as they were narrowed down to 15. Each received a $5,000 scholarship.
The Miss America Pageant, held in Atlantic City, NJ on Sept. 20, 2003, offers scholarships with more scholarship money for woman than athletics and academics combined.
The top 15 were Amber Etheridge, Miss Missouri, Allison Kellogg, Miss Mississippi, Madonna Emond, Miss Michigan, Nancy Amond, Miss Virginia, Bryn Chapman, Miss Indiana, Marina Harrison, Miss Maryland, Laurie Gray, Miss Road Island, Nicole Lamarche, Miss California, Ericka Dunlap, Miss Florida, Catherine Crosby, Miss Alabama Kanoelani Gibson , Miss Hawaii, Candace Glickman, Miss New Hampshire, Andrea Bailey, Miss Georgia, Kelley Scott, Miss Oklahoma, Tina Sauerhammer, M.aryland.,Miss Wisconsin, and Jennifer Farrell, Miss New Jersey.
The girls then went backstage, some in tears, others with butterflies of excitement. They dealt with wardrobe changes and makeup touch-ups.
After the evening wear, casual wear and swimsuit competition, the girls were narrowed down to the top five for the talent and quiz portion of the pageant. Sauerhammer played the cello while the other four women gave vocal performances.
For the remainder of the competition, the contestants gathered on stage in their white gowns, with the top five in colorful gowns at the front of the stage.
As the top five stood awaiting the news, Erika Harold, Miss America 2003 said, “Nothing beats the butterflies.”
A hush fell upon the crowd as the winners were announced.
Miss California was the fifth runner up with a $20,000 scholarship, followed by Miss Maryland, $25,000, Miss Wisconsin, $30,000, Miss Hawaii, $40,000. The crown and went to the 2004 Miss America, Miss Florida, Ericka Dunlap.
Her knees gave in, she walked down the runway in her yellow, strapless gown, and her proud parents met her at the end. The girls ran to her in excitement, squealing and hugging her, tears streaming down their cheeks.
At her first press conference, Dunlap said, “It’s a wonderful, wonderful dream come true.”
“It was truly a blessing for me to start at the age of six.” She learned determination and attainable achievement. Dunlap said the best advice she received from Miss America 2003 Erika Harold was to stay grounded.
She is the first black woman to represent Florida in the Miss America pageant and said she had amazing support from Orlando and her family and friends.
“It is the pathway for all social agendas to be successful,” she said.
Discussing her platform, Celebrating Cultural Diversity and Inclusiveness, she said, “People aren’t as inclusive as they should be [and] I hope to foster respect.”
Dunlap had an encounter with prejudice at a young age during a clogging competition. The woman in charge of the contest doubted that a girl of Dunlap’s race would be part of the competition, and reluctantly admitted her.
Instead of suffering defeat, Dunlap gained courage and danced her heart out. “I was a pretty darn good clogger, let me tell you,” Dunlap said.
“Because of that experience I learned you can break barriers and you can achieve all goals,” she said.
After her win she said, “I still haven’t realized it yet.” “I think I just started to hyperventilate and now I’m so encouraged. This is a wonderful opportunity for me.” Dunlap said her first thought after her crowning was that she owned the runway at that very time, which was an exciting feeling.
Dunlap said the hardest part of her reign will be adjusting to the rigorous schedule.
She chose her song for the pageant, ‘If I Could,’ because of her eight nieces and nephews. The lyrics are about protecting others and giving them courage, which relates to her platform.
Dunlap said if she could do anything, she would make sure their world was free from prejudice and bias.
“It doesn’t matter what race you are, you can do anything you can set your mind to.”
“Always look inside yourself. See yourself at the top of your game.”
She said her highlight was “getting a chance to meet 50 of the most beautiful women in the nation. I have about 50 bridesmaids now.”
However, even when her title is up she said, “I will continue to be Miss America for the rest of my life.”