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Being a Junior Miss: NC Junior Miss contestants compete in Greensboro for the state title

by Amy Kingsley

Onstage under the heat of the stage lights, 18 high school seniors garbed in full length pink, blue and ivory fix 36 eyes at a point above the once screaming heads of an audience gone anxiously silent. They can’t see the TV cameras perched on the front row of the empty balcony, where their eyes would lead if they could see past the 5,000-watt glare staring back at them.

Each holds a bouquet of flowers in a perfectly crooked arm. Some try to negotiate the heft of two or three preliminary category awards ‘— diamond glass trophies etched with cursive.

On the back row, Megan Harrison stands with both hands gripping the bulky Spirit Award trophy. Mascara is running down her cheeks and her chin is quivering.

Seventeen of these women are poised for the last minutes they will spend as competitive representatives of county Junior Miss programs. Tomorrow they will pack up their tap shoes, rearrange luggage to accommodate performance costumes and consign monologues written and memorized to the dustbin of high school history.

The winner will practice, refine, polish and exercise for four more months until the national finals in Mobile, Ala. on June 30. The lure for her, like so many other visitors to a Gulf Coast region renowned for gambling, is more than $60,000 in potential prize money.

But America’s Junior Miss Program, like the host city itself limping back from the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, is experiencing an uncertain resurrection. Last year organizers announced the dissolution of the scholarship program after the loss of Coca-Cola’s sponsorship, only to provoke enough support to rally the program back to its feet. North Carolina’s Junior Miss, along with the other contestants from across the country, will need the boost of scholarship money to help carry the program forward on her narrow shoulders.

The group on stage tonight is the smallest in the history of North Carolina’s Junior Miss Program representing counties that have not folded their local programs in the last few years. The silent faces in the audience tonight are not only waiting to find out what the future holds for one of these seniors. They are listening for the echoes of ‘“American Idol,’” the clamor of higher education financiers and the feminist disapproval of pageants ‘— death knells of a tradition threatened by millennial progress.

The first thing state committee members will tell you when you ask them about Junior Miss is that it is not a beauty pageant. It is a scholarship program.

North Carolina’s 2005 Junior Miss, Hope Lu, used the $30,000 she earned from state and national competitions to fund her freshman year at Duke University. A poster on her high school guidance counselor’s wall piqued her interest junior year, but she almost didn’t enter when she found out about the pageant component.

‘“My local chairman really showed me the true spirit of Junior Miss,’” She said. ‘“Once I talked to them about the program they convinced me to try it out.’”

She hid her activities from her parents, Yan-Hua Chen and Qun Lu, who one year later bustle around backstage comparing evening gowns.

Lu welcomed the girls to Greensboro, which has hosted the state program for 28 years, at the Jaycees’ office downtown on Jan. 27. That first night, the businesslike contestants met each other, state officials and the host families that would house them for the next week and a half. Families waited for production director Frank Smith to announce their daughters before they got back into their cars and drove home.

John Stucker smiled widely, his arm resting on the back of his daughter’s chair. Amie Stucker, Kinston’s Junior Miss, is here for the week from Lenoir County in the eastern part of the state.

‘“It’s the kind of place where you know everybody,’” Stucker says. ‘“There’s not a whole lot to do so you have to go to other cities.’”

Her family has lived there all their lives, but her two older brothers have left, one for college in Wilmington, another for a job in Tennessee.

Despite what she says about her community, Stucker nurtures a passion for dance that keeps her busy Monday through Thursday. She has the muscle tone of an Olympic gymnast and embodies the Junior Miss fitness mandate. It is not something she takes for granted.

‘“When I was little I had a hole in my heart and the doctors fixed it up,’” she says. ‘“Now I’m active and I want to help children with medical problems like I had.’”

She recounts this story in competition as a response to the question, ‘“What motivates you to keep reaching for your dreams?’” Stucker belongs to Group B, The Believers, who compete in the fitness and self-expression category Friday night and talent on Saturday. Her goal is to become a pediatrician, and she starts college at East Carolina University next year majoring in pre-med.

Rehearsals started Jan. 28, and continued for the week leading up to the final performance. Of course, the week reveals just a glimpse of lifetimes filled with practice, study and, in some cases, Junior Miss grooming.

Local programs recruit through dance instructors, high school counselors, voice coaches and others trained to spot talented, high-achieving young women.

‘“All these girls prepare years in advance,’” Smith says. ‘“While they’re in local programs they support their county’s contestant.’”

During rehearsal Jan. 30, Rockingham County’s Junior Miss wears a T-shirt she got last year supporting that county’s 2005 Junior Miss. The girls, dressed in sweats with their hair tied back, run through the upcoming final number for Friday night, a choreographed romp to the Shrek theme ‘“I’m a Believer’” by The Monkees.

The song relates to the pageant’s premise, ‘“The Hopes and Dreams of Junior Miss.’” During last year’s nationals, Lu finished as the first runner-up and swept the overall talent competition with a virtuoso violin performance. Lu inspired the theme of the pageant, but she is also a symbol of the crossroads at which the pageant has arrived.

North Carolina has become increasingly urbanized in the last half-century, and Guilford is the only one of the five largest counties that has an active Junior Miss program. Alexandra Speros, a contestant from Raleigh, earned her entrance through an at-large bid offered for women without local programs. The largest county besides Guilford is Buncombe, anchored by Asheville. The other contestants hail from rural areas.

Junior Miss demands a vast number of competencies: talent, scholastics, poise, fitness and self-expression. Interview and talent comprise 25 percent each, scholastics 20 percent, and fitness and self-expression 15 percent. While scholarship competitions like National Merit focus on academics, others award athletic progress, few require competitors to excel at aerobics, master an art form and rise to the head of the class like Junior Miss.

Then there are subcategories for evening wear and costume, as well as high marks for big smiles. Brains, talent and deportment, it seems, are not enough. The ability to master such an array of requirements, organizers say, separates the leaders in Junior Miss and in life.

‘“We’ve had girls that were wide-eyed sweet and others that were driven to succeed,’” Smith says. ‘“The things they have in common are that they are smart, they get along well with others and they express themselves well. They really are the leaders.’”

And all the competitors will tell you that as such, they feel more comfortable around each other.

‘“We were talking earlier about how we’ve made tighter bonds in these last three days than we have with some of the people we went to school with,’” says Brittiney Wall, Rockingham County’s Junior Miss. ‘“We’re all goal-oriented and everyone here already has a title.’”

After the rehearsal breaks up they distribute the gifts each contestant brought from her county for the others. For the moment, away from judging eyes, the girls disintegrate into high school verbiage, invoking ‘“likes’” and long ‘“sooooo’s.’” The presentations reveal guarded insecurity.

‘“So, my dad owns a feed store and these burlap bags we used smell real bad,’” Roxboro’s Erin Dixon says. ‘“Anyway here’s a stuffed horse my dad got for free.’”

A chorus of ‘“Awwwwws.’”

‘“And here is my favorite part. My uncle owns a company called Piedmont Maintenance Service, so we all get PMS shirts.’”

‘“Omigod I have that shirt!’” says Savannah Gaylord, Greensboro’s Junior Miss. ‘“I got it in a thrift store.’”

There is studied indifference in almost every presentation. But the circle of girls responds with resounding gusto.

On Feb. 1 they moved that enthusiasm from the plain top floor of the Jaycees’ building to the stage at War Memorial Auditorium where the performances will take place. In the afternoon the room is dark as pitch, lit only by a spotlight set to pick up individual talent performances.

Two or three of the girls dress in their costumes or wait offstage left. The rest sit in their rehearsal clothes in the front row, watching and cheering their fellow contestants. It is a tech rehearsal to coordinate the lights and sound, but the girls give it all they’ve got. Backstage, Lauren Raynor, Pitt County’s Junior Miss, prepares herself.

‘“If I fall it won’t be the first time and it won’t be the last,’” she whispers to herself.

She’s dancing pointe, a self-choreographed number to ‘“Yankee Doodle Dandy.’” When she exits after her 90-second performance, she’s crying.

‘“She did so good, but she’s so hard on herself,’” Wall says.

But they all are. Sobs erupt backstage as the women in the front rows clap and shout. As hard as they are on themselves, they support each other. But there’s a competition for that, too, the Spirit Award voted on by contestants.

The girls, used to being leaders, offer advice on everything: staging, lighting and sound. Smith, who stage manages the show, listens and rarely silences the gaggle of voices.

A charter bus is stationed in front of War Memorial Auditorium Friday night. Inside, the crowd is largely young, female and well dressed. Junior Junior Misses, as it were.

The girls’ families have also traveled from far and near and east and west to witness part one of the week’s culmination. Tables offer programs for $8, sweatshirts, T-shirts and photo books.

Behind the heavy curtain, the contestants mill about, twirling the black-sequined hats they sport for the opening number. In the background Jimmy Buffet is lamenting about leisure and indulgence. The contestants are getting their last taste of it before the competition is on, singing and shuffling to ‘“Cheeseburger in Paradise.’”

‘“Places everybody,’” comes the call.

In the preshow darkness Lu rests her violin on her shoulder and readies her bow. This year’s contestants line up in front of her, still, like a chorus line of ladies in waiting.

The audience lets out a teenage howl seemingly calibrated to wake the heartthrob dead and the curtain lifts. Lu leans in to the intro for the Eurythmics’ ‘“Sweet Dreams (Are Made of These)’” before the original recording starts. With the first synthesized downbeat of a song released five years before any of the contestants had been born, the contest begins.

The opening number allows for short introductions of each competitor, followed by the applause of respective cheering sections. Wall and Rocky Mount’s Molly Bales bring the loudest groups. Bales responds with an exuberant two-handed wave. After the number, the girls bolt to their dressing rooms for a quick change into fitness outfits for Group B and talent costumes for Group A.

One of the things organizers use to differentiate the Junior Miss program from Miss America is its lack of a swimsuit competition and emphasis on scholastics. The fitness routine requires contestants to do pushups, jumping jacks, and sit-ups in a choreographed routine. The judges evaluate muscle tone, coordination and endurance.

Each contestant comes up to the front for a solo routine. When Stucker performs, the seasoned program organizers backstage nod approvingly.

Behind them, Cary/Apex Junior Miss Kristen Holcombe adjusts the costume she will wear for her talent routine. Onstage, the fitness routine continues, and the strain is showing as those big smiles devolve into grimaces. Backstage the rehearsal chatter has vanished ‘– the girls watch their counterparts perform, occasionally whispering support.

Holcombe, who will be attending West Point next year, is talent contestant number one, and she is performing a solo a cappella tap routine. She’s been dancing since she was seven.

Each contestant gets 90 seconds to perform, and most of them have set their talent to music. Holcombe has practiced, but if she exceeds her allotted time, she will be disqualified.

‘“Before it started I had so much adrenaline I almost had a panic attack,’” Holcombe says later. ‘“But I finished in one minute and twenty-six seconds.’”

Maybe it’s the discipline that earned her a place at the US Military Academy, something she learned from her father, a lieutenant colonel.

The third contestant is the hometown girl, Greensboro’s Savannah Gaylord, performing a medley of fiddle tunes on the violin she has studied since age four. In addition to playing in the Page High School orchestra, she performs with local band Looking Back. Between the orchestra and the band, she has played a lot, all over the state.

But tonight, toward the end of the medley, she pops a string. With the requisite grace under pressure, she finishes, bows to the crowd and tucks both violin and bow under her arm as she is led offstage. Once there, she starts sobbing, leaning on longtime volunteer Sammie Crumley, who seems to specialize in collecting these fragile girls just long enough for them to pull themselves together. It’s the first time she has popped a string in performance.

‘“My activities kind of consume my life,’” she says later.

Does she regret it? ‘“Yeah, sometimes. Just because I’m so busy all the time and I don’t really have any time to myself. But it’s my lifestyle. I’ve chosen to do it.’”

That’s what you’ll hear across the board from these young women. They strive to excel in everything, and most of them succeed. But what happens when you put 18 of them together to endeavor against each other when only one can win?

Junior Miss judges claim the choice comes down to ‘“a representative from a group of winners, not a winner from a group of representatives.’”

The contestants certainly support each other, offering hugs and words of encouragement. But it is amazing how quickly they rebound from a setback. Waterworks inspired by a slip on the dance floor dry up in time for the closing number Friday.

Throughout the competition, there have been small tragedies, like the contestant who split her pants during last night’s closing number. On Saturday morning, word spreads about a real tragedy. Wall heard that four of her friends were involved in a car accident after a basketball game, and that one of them might be paralyzed.

‘“Why did they tell her?’” asks the mother of a 2005 contestant. ‘“They shouldn’t have told her until after tonight.’”

Tonight is it, the last one the contestants will spend with each other, their host families and for most, in Greensboro. One will be crowned ‘— without an actual crown, of course ‘— North Carolina’s Junior Miss and scholarships will be awarded.

Before the show, during rehearsals for last year’s contestants, Holcombe paces the Green Room, repeating the speech she penned and memorized for self-expression. It is almost 5 p.m.; time for practice is running out.

‘“I hate public speaking,’” says the willowy contestant, number one and tallest of the lot. She turns inside the room, whispering the words she needs tonight.

At 7 p.m. the show begins, same as the last time, with an introduction by emcees Jeff Wicker of 98.7 FM and Lauren Scott, the 1999 North Carolina Junior Miss now working toward her doctor of chiropractic degree.

After the opening number the girls reverse, with Group A performing the fitness routine while Group B prepares for talent. First up is Jones County Junior Miss, Tiffany Ife-Lola Fele, performing a self-choreographed African dance.

The Trenton, NJ native returned with her family to rural Jones County 10 years ago to reunite with her grandmother on her mother’s side.

‘“I chose this talent because my father is Nigerian, so it is part of my heritage,’” Fele says. ‘“And my mother really likes the way I African dance. I love my talent, but I’m nervous about it because it’s so different from everybody else’s.’”

She begins the performance with a quiet song that bleeds into fast percussion and vigorous movement. In addition to doing the choreography, she designed her own costume out of traditional elements.

Like so many others, she leaves the stage crying, walking past the socks she discarded right before her performance and leaning on Crumley’s tiny shoulders. For an event that is not a pageant, North Carolina’s Junior Miss certainly has many of the trappings of one, from group dance numbers to repeated breakdowns.

Soon Stucker hits the stage, also for a dance routine, but a more traditional jazz number. She sails through it, wheeling through the air and prancing with almost predatory precision. Afterwards she takes the arm of her escort and walks slowly offstage.

‘“I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe!’” she rasps while fanning herself and running through arms outstretched for congratulatory hugs. She’s bolting for the dressing room to get her asthma inhaler.

‘“These girls are breathtakingly talented,’” Fele says. And she’s right. As their performances wrap up, Group A paces in evening gowns, preparing for the last judged competition of the evening, self-expression.

Holcombe approaches the microphone, which sits several inches below her chin, and starts speaking through the musical intro. Several seconds pass before the levels are adjusted so the judges and audience can hear her. She is thrown.

‘“William Wallace united the different Scottish clans to fight the oppression of the English. The true patriot,’” she pauses. ‘“This true patriot’…united the Scottish clans though there were many instances of doubt in the hearts of his soldiers’…Though there were many instances of doubt in his soldiers.’”

She holds it together, finishing the speech about how she would like to learn Wallace’s trade and inspire US soldiers as an army officer to fight against oppression around the world. Then she steps back, allowing the last eight contestants to take their turn in the spotlight. The girls file off, extra entertainers take to the stage, and the judges vanish to tabulate the winners.

A half hour later the five judges ride the pit lift back up to stage level, results in hand. Wicker shuffles his cards and hands out the 22 preliminary awards, including Harrison’s Spirit nod and the overall scholastic for Buncombe County’s Windsor Hanger.

Stucker earns one $250 scholarship for fitness; Holcombe gets the same amount for her talent. Wall takes away two awards, for talent and fitness, and keeps smiling despite her bad news. Hanger and Bales each earn three preliminary awards in the same categories: self-expression, interview and scholastics.

‘“And now, for the moment you’ve all been waiting for,’” Wicker says. ‘“The third finalist, winner of a $1,500 scholarship, is Chelsea Davis.’”

She takes her flowers, trophy and place.

‘“The second finalist and winner of a $2,500 scholarship is Lauren Raynor.’” The crowd thunders its approval.

‘“The first finalist and winner of a $4,000 scholarship is,’” Wicker takes a breath, ‘“Windsor Hanger.’”

That leaves the winner, Molly Bales from Rocky Mount, who takes away a prize worth $9,000 in scholarship money. The girls break ranks and swarm Bales, sobbing mascara tears as the curtain drops.

The next day, they gather at the Clarion Hotel for a farewell breakfast. Several tables have plain tissue boxes alongside the coffee mugs and floral centerpieces. The flood of tears has even engulfed the adults who organized the program.

The slender Bales is talking about enlisting a personal trainer and about sacrificing some of her senior year for pageant preparations.

‘“I’m excited but I’m also torn,’” she says. ‘“I know its not going to be the same as it was here. My tear ducts are just going crazy right now.’”

Like Lu from 2005 (both winners look resplendent in pink skirt sets) Bales stumbled dubiously upon Junior Miss through her voice teacher.

‘“As an avowed feminist I was pretty skeptical,’” Bales says. ‘“I know that my parents were very surprised.’”

She’ll find out about her application to Yale, her first choice college, in March, about a month and a half into training for nationals. Once in Mobile, she will be working toward winning the latest installment of the oldest annual scholarship for women, incorporated 12 years before Yale University agreed to admit women.

Now the percentage of women has rocketed to a full 50 percent, and the number of scholarships has grown just as quickly. The 2005 board of directors admitted the program’s obsolescence when they tried to fold it last year.

Bales, a lifetime resident of Rocky Mount whose parents relocated there from Tennessee and New Jersey, is part of a wave that must make the pageant/program palatable to high-achieving young women aiming for any number of scholarships.

The organizers sell the sense of community and the opportunity to spend time with future leaders. But in the end it will be one young woman, sure in her heels and a lovely evening gown, who takes the prize. Then she will use it, this vestige of a past when women had few opportunities, to start a future where anything is seemingly possible.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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