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Cameron at RIR in April for the Crown Royal Heath Calhoun 400. She sang “God Bless America” before the race. Intro: Casey Templeton photo; Above: Ash Daniel photo
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The young patient at Children's National Medical Center is growing increasingly irritated at the woman across the table. The glittering crown that the 22-year-old VCU student just handed to her tour manager doesn't impress this elementary schooler in the least. He doesn't care that Caressa Cameron is Miss America.
All that matters is that they are playing Gone Fishing — and he is losing.
As Cameron starts to reel in yet another catch, he grabs the game and starts plucking fish out of the "water" with his hands. Cameron winces for a second and then tries to explain how to maneuver the miniature fishing rod. "Just go play by yourself!" the boy blurts back. Cameron, unruffled by the tantrum, smiles and begins to stack the fish she catches into the boy's pile. The gesture catches him off guard but serves to calm him down.
Cameron's appearance at the Children's National Medical Center in Washington, part of her work with Children's Miracle Network, is just one event in a busy schedule that will keep her traveling some 20,000 miles each month during her reign as Miss America.
Moments after winning the pageant on Jan. 30, Cameron was whisked to a back room with her family before attending to the media. "From that point on, we were shadows," her father, Jerome, says, alluding to the fact that his daughter would be on the move constantly for the next year, missing family events such as birthdays while appearing at innumerable public events, meeting wounded warriors overseas and at home, and promoting her personal platform of "Real Talk: AIDS in America."
Since that fateful night, Cameron has been living out of two suitcases and a carry-on. She's in a different location every 18 to 36 hours. "Your life changes immediately," she says. "The next day you are on a plane to New York for media and off on a year where you will live from hotel to hotel."
The Miss America pageant dates back to 1921, when a group of businessmen in Atlantic City, N.J., decided that a bathing-suit contest would be a surefire way to lure visitors to the city for the Labor Day weekend. The swimsuit competition has remained, but the pageant's focus shifted in 1945, when it became a scholarship program for women. "People don't understand what our mission is," says Art McMaster, president and CEO of the Miss America Organization. "They are not aware of the amount of scholarship money we raise every year."
Last year alone, the nonprofit Miss America Organization awarded more than $45 million in scholarship assistance. (Cameron has used scholarship money earned through pageants to pay for college.)
Her pageant win also provides Cameron, who's pursuing a bachelor's degree in broadcast communications at VCU, a solid platform from which to launch a career: Her goal is to become a national television broadcaster, following in the footsteps of past Miss Americas such as WRIC alum Gretchen Carlson, who now co-hosts Fox News' morning show Fox and Friends .
Cameron was born in Washington but lived most of her life in Fredericksburg. "She has always been at ease in front of a crowd," says Cameron's mother, LaVern, who laughs when she recalls the first time her daughter tried to sing at the ripe age of 8 months after listening to neighbors repeatedly play the Will Smith song "Wild Wild West."
"She was in front of the television and began to bounce and was singing the words ‘wild wild west,' " LaVern says. At that point, Cameron had not even said Mama or Dada. "Those were her first words." By the time she was 3, Cameron was singing in church.
Yolanda Makle, a family friend who first heard Cameron sing when she was 11, says, "She has some chops." When Makle asked her what she wanted to do when she grew up, Cameron shot back, "I want to be Miss America."
Her mom wasn't surprised by the answer. "Caressa would watch the pageants with me," she says. "Any little girl wishes she could be Miss America." ( Above: Cameron at age 4 )
Growing up, Cameron loved being in front of a camera. "She has never had a shy bone," says her dad. "She's always been bright and bubbly."
That said, like many other children hitting puberty, Cameron suffered through an awkward phase. Children at school would call her "Wolverine," after the hirsute Marvel superhero, because she had long sideburns, braces and a unibrow. "There was definitely a lot of teasing in middle school," she says. "It could have been a lot worse, but it did hurt."
The teasing carried over into early high school, and Cameron's self-esteem took a substantial hit. Her father tried to encourage her, telling his daughter that she was his princess. "I heard her telling her brothers that one time," he says, laughing. "She said to them, ‘I don't care what you say, I am Daddy's princess.' "
In ninth grade at Massaponax High School, Cameron had an epiphany via a visit from Miss Virginia Nancy Redd, who talked to the students about not letting negativity get the best of you, putting energy instead into doing things that make you happy.
"I was tired of being sad and upset. I began to recognize the control people had over me," Cameron says. "The only thing I knew I was good at was singing. I got involved in drama and chorus, and that opened doors for me." She landed her first musical role as Eponine in Les Misérables during her sophomore year and continued to do musicals throughout high school.
At age 13, she started competing in pageants after a break of five years. "I wanted to feel good about who I was," she says. "Now I am a very secure person who can be inspirational to other young people. I've learned that you are not defined by the things other people say about you."
Makle recalls how Cameron struggled and eventually handled her situation in school. "She took something that had been detrimental to her psyche and used it as a way of empowering herself."
As part of her Miss America duties, Cameron serves as the national goodwill ambassador for Children's Miracle Network, making countless public appearances and raising funds for the charity, while also promoting her own personal platform, dealing with HIV/AIDS education. Her devotion to the latter cause is a direct result of her own life experiences. In the early 1990s, when Cameron was in elementary school, her uncle Robert Lewis lived with the family for a while when he was suffering from AIDS. He died from the disease in 1995, when Cameron was 8.
"Caressa loved him dearly," her father, Jerome, says. "He was always doing something for the kids." Every birthday, he would send them a card with the same amount of money as their age. He would take Caressa and her brothers, Brian, Thomas and Nathan, on trips. One year, he took them to Los Angeles, where they toured Hollywood.
A few months after her uncle's death, Cameron's family served as a foster family for a young girl who had been born with HIV. Some neighbors, fearful of the disease, wouldn't let their children play with Cameron. "She saw how people reacted to it," her father says, "and that made her aware of how people with AIDS are somewhat ostracized and how people could have phobias because of a lack of education."
Cameron spent much of her time during middle school volunteering, seeking to create awareness of HIV/AIDS. She helped her mother when LaVern served as education coordinator for Fredericksburg Area HIV/AIDS Support Services. She and her mom spoke to the local school board, successfully persuading public-school officials in Spotsylvania County, as well as surrounding counties, to establish AIDS-targeted sex education in middle schools. During her junior year in high school, Cameron acted as the coordinator of youth services for the Fighting the AIDS Crisis with Education and Support (FACES) project.
Cameron's uncle and his fight against HIV/AIDS have played a big role in how she views issues related to the disease. "I see on a daily basis the social stigma and prejudices that those dealing with HIV/AIDS face all the time."
Cameron's reign coincides with a changing landscape for the Miss America pageant. One of the longest-running live events on television, the pageant had its first broadcast in 1954, when viewers' choices included just three major networks. In 1960, 85 million viewers watched Miss Michigan Nancy Fleming take the crown. Fast-forward to today, when families have hundreds of channels to choose from along with other media, and the Miss America pageant was happy to score 4.5 million viewers in 2010 on cable channel TLC, a 29 percent increase from the previous year. "It's hard to compare the organization [as far as ratings] to the organization of the 1960s," says McMaster, Miss America's CEO. "It's changed. We are now competing against all the channels. … No one has the same ratings."
Television is not a single focus for families like it was in the 1950s and '60s, says Thomas Inge, Blackwell professor of humanities at Randolph-Macon College. Inge, who specializes in American popular culture, points to the Internet and social media as the main attention-getters today. "Most people spend their time in front of a computer screen," he says.
The pageant's history is entrenched in Atlantic City, where it was held for 85 years and where each newly crowned Miss America used to take her traditional romp in the ocean the day after winning, but the pageant began broadcasting from Las Vegas in 2006. The move, McMaster says, helped the show "re-grow and rebrand. It needed a spark, and Las Vegas offered us that opportunity."
Cameron remembers watching the pageant when it was broadcast from Atlantic City. The new venue, she feels, was necessary. "Of course a part of me wishes I was part of history [in Atlantic City], but a part of me is excited about the new face of Miss America. As America changes, so does Miss America. It has to change with society."
(Another change is afoot: The pageant is returning to network television next year: In May, McMaster announced a multiyear deal with ABC starting with the 2011 Miss America pageant. ABC aired the pageant in 2004 and will retain the exclusive telecast rights through 2013.)
Inge believes that two annual events — the Miss America telecast and the Academy Awards — gauge the state of culture in the United States. "With the Academy Awards, you can see the progress in taste and appreciation for the arts," he explains. "With Miss America, you can observe how changes are coming about with ethnicity and gender issues."
Cameron got her first taste of the runway at the age of 6, when she participated in the Someday a Miss America pageant in Stafford in 1993, snagging the title. "She hung onto that sash until it wore out," says her dad. At 8, she was a talent winner in the Miss American Coed pageant, landing in the top 25, but her parents worried when Cameron got upset after failing to win the overall title.
"Caressa was disappointed," LaVern says. "She didn't understand the dynamics of winning and losing. She couldn't understand why she didn't win. We felt like pageants were not a good idea at that age." So Cameron stopped competing.
Then, when she turned 13, Cameron asked her mother if she could participate in pageants again. After agreeing, LaVern saw an ad for the Miss Fredericksburg Fair pageant. "I found out about it and paid the $10 fee, and there you go," she says. "We bought her a dress from the J.C. Penney clearance rack and a tube of lipstick and called it a day. She won that pageant."
Cameron went on to compete in a variety of pageants, winning every time. Those days were special to LaVern. "We had a lot of girl moments," she says. "It was an opportunity to talk to her about various things in her life. I value those years I had with her."
Cameron believed it was important to get involved in the pageants that led to Miss America because she wanted to promote her AIDS-awareness platform. "That has always been at the heart of my competing," she says.
When she was 18 and a student at Germanna Community College, Cameron landed the title of Miss Greater Springfield (the first in her climb to Miss America). That win led to her first Miss Virginia pageant in 2006. "That semester at Germanna was the last my family paid for school," Cameron says. "Scholarship organizations have paid for school since then."
Cameron transferred to VCU after her second year at Germanna. A normal college student, albeit one who's been listed in Who's Who Among America's College Students, she enjoys hanging out with friends and admits that she's more of a football fan than a basketball fan. "At this point, VCU is still undefeated in football," she says, echoing the longtime lament of alums and students who dream of gridiron glory while attending a school without a football team.
Cameron didn't win the Miss Virginia title until her fourth try, in 2009, but she never saw her previous attempts as losing. "No one leaves empty-handed," she says. "Everyone in the top 10 gets some sort of scholarship. There are lots of awards and money you can win without having to place."
Winning the Miss Virginia pageant is one thing. Winning the title of Miss America? According to Cameron, odds are better that you will have a son play in the Super Bowl than a daughter win Miss America.
Cameron spent a lot of time preparing for the competition, picking the perfect evening gown, working with choreographers to learn different walking patterns and catching up on current events. She had already mastered the behind-the-scenes beauty tips, everything from spraying her hair before she put in hot rollers to using Windex to remove Firm Grip (a spray that helps tack down a swimsuit or dance costume). "I have never in my life seen someone so determined," Makle says. "She put everything into being prepared for Miss America."
When it came to prepping for the competition's interview segment, Cameron says that she avoided any type of mock interview. "I am unconventional in that sense," she says. "I don't like to rehearse my answer." She never anticipates a question. "I think about the issue and say what I feel and not what I think [the judges] want to hear. If they agree or disagree is irrelevant. Scoring is about how well you communicate on controversial issues in a noncondescending way."
Her experience helped her during the 2009 Miss Virginia pageant when she was asked about Proposition 8, a California ballot measure against same-sex marriage. She answered diplomatically, emphasizing the separation of church and state and noting that she did not believe "we should legislate against gay marriage," but she added that owing to her religious upbringing, she believes marriage should be between a man and woman.
She thinks that Carrie Prejean, who experienced a great deal of fallout from her answer to a similar question during the 2009 Miss USA pageant, made the mistake of anticipating a query about her personal views on same-sex marriage, when the question referred to whether or not states should make same-sex marriage legal. "She answered what she thought they were asking," Cameron says.
Miss America contestants arrive in Las Vegas 10 days before the pageant. "It's a high-stress situation," Cameron says, adding that contestants bond during that time. "There are only 52 women that we can share the experience with. It's a very unique sisterhood."
Unlike films such as Miss Congeniality , in which backstage backstabbing becomes fodder for comedy, Cameron didn't experience any cattiness among contestants. "You can't change who you are," she says. "If you are so concerned with what others are doing, you might not be picked because you won't be on your A-game."
One of the most competitive parts of the Miss America pageant this year was talent. "The top-10 talent was unbelievable," says Cameron, who enjoys singing in front of an audience. Her first brush with the big lights came when she was 13 years old and sang Sandi Patti's "We Shall Behold Him" in the Apollo Kids show at the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem. Last year, she sang "Listen" from the Broadway show Dreamgirls at the Capital Riverfront Presidential Ball, celebrating the inauguration of President Barack Obama. She performed the same song during the talent portion of Miss America. It brought her father to tears. "I couldn't stand up," he says. "I just cried and pointed to the sky."
LaVern Cameron felt that her daughter was unnervingly calm at the Miss America competition. Perhaps it was because the notion that she could actually capture the crown didn't hit Cameron until she was one of the last three contestants standing. When her name was called, she remembers looking at host Mario Lopez and saying, "No way." He fired back, "Yes, way. You just won." Cameron was stunned by the moment. "I couldn't believe it," she says. "I said, ‘Thank you, Jesus.' "
During the first six months of her reign, Cameron has attended everything from fundraising and award ceremonies to sporting events such as the Super Bowl and NASCAR races.
In April, she sang "God Bless America" before the start of NASCAR's Crown Royal Heath Calhoun 400 race at Richmond International Raceway. Decked out in stilettos, a silky ensemble, several strands of pearls and her Miss America crown, Cameron made heads turn as she walked through the garage and pit area. (Cameron only wears her crown at official Miss America functions, but she jokes that it would be nice to slip it on when she's standing in a long line for an amusement park ride.)
Tiny in frame — think size 0 and under 5-foot-5 — Cameron doesn't get flustered out in public. When a male NASCAR fan's hand slid a bit too far southward from her waist as a picture was being snapped, she cut a glance toward her tour manager but never flinched.
Still, it's obvious that she enjoys meeting Miss America fans, everyone from seniors to youngsters, taking the time to sign autographs and pose for photos. When asked to name her favorite NASCAR driver during a media session, she smiles and answers in appropriately evenhanded fashion, "As Miss America, I have to be diplomatic." Then with a wide grin and after a wait-for-it pause, she adds, "I hope the best racer wins and that it is a safe race."
Nat Jackson, Cameron's boyfriend of three years, stands in the background of the media room until Cameron leans on hism to slip off her heels and pull on a pair of gold-colored flats. Because many of her recent events have been in Virginia, including a stint as a guest conductor for the Richmond Symphony, he has gotten to see her several times. "I usually only get to see her once or twice a month," he says, noting that being Miss America's boyfriend really hasn't sunk in yet. "It's exciting for me. It does have its perks."
Now on a yearlong leave from VCU, Cameron plans to head back to school after her reign ends to get not only her bachelor's but also a master's degree. And of course she hopes that the education she's getting during her reign as Miss America will help open career doors for her. "The amount of people I get to meet and the [TV studios] I get to see are experiences I couldn't pay for," Cameron says.
As far as this Miss America's popularity goes, just ask the NASCAR fan who nearly toppled over a gate trying to text his wife so she could leave her seat in the stands and come get her photo taken with Cameron. Or his wife, who made the dash down the steps and across the track just in time.