Crown Goes To Miss Illinois

Miss Illinois Erika Howard reacts after being named Miss America 2003. AP

For years, the people behind Miss America have been telling the world there's more to her than a rhinestone crown and a pretty smile.

In Miss America 2003, Erika Harold of Urbana, Ill., they have a brainy beauty who proves it.

Harold, a 22-year-old Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Illinois, was to enroll this fall at Harvard law school but put it off so she could compete in the Miss America Pageant.

Her performance in a pop quiz given to the five finalists, in which she correctly answered 10 of 16 multiple choice questions about contemporary culture and American history, and her soaring aria in the talent competition helped seal her victory Saturday night.

"You have a Miss America that absolutely personifies what this program is about and where we're going," said Interim CEO George Bauer. "The walk is matching the talk."

Harold said she plans to promote anti-violence and anti-bullying programs during her yearlong reign.

She chose the cause because of personal experience: As a ninth grader, she was bullied and harassed, both racially and sexually, and had to change schools to escape it, she said. But some bullied youngsters react instead with violence, Harold said.

She said she hopes that by showing bullying victims they're not alone — it even happens to future Miss Americas — they won't continue to suffer in silence.

"These children feel so persecuted that they feel they have no choice but to take a weapon" and exact their revenge, she said.

"We have got to, as a country, change the way in which we view violence," she said.

Harold, the oldest of four children, began competing in pageants when she was 18 and won the Miss Illinois pageant on her third try. Among her competitors in the state pageant this year was her 20-year-old her sister, Alexandra Harold.

"It wasn't something (Erika) grew up seeking," said her mother, Donna Harold, 48, a community college counselor. "But when she sets her sights on something, she goes for it."

Harold, who comes from a multi-ethnic background, said she fills out `other' on U.S. Census forms. Her mother is part black, part American Indian and part Russian; her father, Robert, is Greek, German, Welsh and English.

"I don't like to label myself. So I wouldn't choose one label," she said.

For winning the Miss America title, Harold gets $50,000 in scholarship aid to add to the $30,000 in scholarships she'd already amassed competing in the Miss America system.

She plans to put that into Harvard and hopes to become an attorney and one day run for national political office.

On Sunday, Harold followed in the tradition of all newly crowned Miss Americas, splashing in the Atlantic Ocean surf for photographers and then holding a news conference to talk about herself and pose with the crown.

Her only regret, she said, was that she didn't get more questions right on the "Jeopardy"-style pop quiz in the pageant.

She didn't know the name of the pilot who made the first solo trans-Atlantic crossing in 1927 (Charles Lindbergh) or the name of the first American in space (Alan Shepard), but she knew that the late Ted Williams was the baseball Hall of Famer whose heirs were fighting over whether to freeze his body.

Harold scored second among the five finalists on the quiz, after Miss Alabama Scarlotte Deupree, who got 11 right.

Deupree was the first runner-up in the competition; Miss Oklahoma Casey Preslar was second runner-up; Miss Nevada Teresa Benitez was third runner-up; and Miss Maryland Camille Lewis rounded out the five finalists.
  • Jaime Holguin

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