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Miss Housing Authority 1999

Backstage at beauty pageants, where young women get ready to compete for a crown, one expects to find a lot of primping, reports CBS News Correspondent Maggie Cooper.

But it takes more than beauty to succeed in the Miss Housing Authority pageant in Newark, New Jersey -- a lot more.

"It's not about how beautiful you are, because they are already beautiful," said Emma Lucas, the pageant organizer. "It's not about how tall or fat you are, it's the inner self esteem that will win this pageant."

Girls like fourteen-year-old Rasheeda Alston participate in five months of physical and emotional challenges -- programs intended to develop trust and build self esteem.

"I'd got a nasty attitude, and they taught me how to respect people's feelings and treat people the way I want to be treated," Rasheeda says.

They spend weeks in workshops on poise, presentation, and life skills -- paid for with federal funds. The girls give back hours of community service and a dedication to learning.

Pageant contestants come from New Jersey's public housing projects.

In Newark, 43% of girls fail to graduate from high school. For many, college, travel, or a career seems out of reach. But pageant organizers say their goal is to change that.

"It keeps the young girls off the street," Lucas says. "They are learning. These girls are the future and they need help."

And they need determination. More than half the girls who apply drop out before the final event.

Sixteen-year-old Shaniqua Brower stuck with it because she knows girls without goals in the projects sometimes settle for less than they are worth.

"The majority of them get pregnant, have kids, you know. They'd be dating drug dealers," Shaniqua says.

What Shaniqua learned is it's not how high you kick, but how high you aim that counts.

She didn't bring home the crown, but says she will be back to try again next year.