Photo by Mark Mitchell
The young lady pictured is neither an angel nor a unicorn. She is, however, the newly crowned Miss South Carolina, and in a few short months Anna Perry '07 will represent the Palmetto State - and the College - at the Miss America pageant in Las Vegas on Jan. 24, 2009.
By pageant day, Perry will have mastered the art of wearing a tiara. Her crown, it is said, must be perfectly centered on the top of the head to avoid unfavorable comparisons. "It can't be a halo slipping off the back," she says, "or make me look like a unicorn." The secret? Hairpins.
Her adoring fans, gathering around her on the hottest day of the year as she's being photographed on Duke of Gloucester Street, can't see the hairpins. Little girls nearly trip over themselves to get close to her; a 3-year-old boy sheepishly stands nearby until he gets the nerve to ask her to dance. It's not easy making eye contact with grade-schoolers when you're 6-foot-plus in heels, but Perry is getting the hang of it.
"The biggest thing with kids is crouching down and getting on their level, making sure they're not intimidated," she says. The heat index is more than 100 degrees, but she's still smiling and signing autographs after the photo shoot is over. Today, only two weeks into her yearlong public speaking schedule, is only the beginning.
Perry's process started at the local pageant level: although she grew up in Florence, S.C., she chose to compete in the state's Miss Lexington pageant because she liked Jackie Wells, the competition's local executive director, or LED.
"Once you win a title, you work closely with your LED," says Perry. "Jackie puts a lot of emotional investment into her girls."
Anna and Jackie worked together toward the Miss South Carolina pageant on July 5. Each pageant in the Miss America system has the same scoring process: 15 percent for swimsuit, 20 percent for evening gown, 25 percent for the pre-pageant interview, and 35 percent for talent. This leaves 5 percent of the scoring for the onstage question.
A double major in music and chemistry at the College, Perry chose George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" as her talent. Her music major, a piano performance concentration, helped her concoct an arrangement of the 24-minute original that fit into the pageant's required two-minute limit.
"I know that I've had all this training, and I know I can play it up to my personal level of perfection," she says. "I just put that pressure on myself to bring that level of perfection to the stage."
She is careful to explain that the old-fashioned "swimsuit competition" has evolved into an evaluation of the contestant's lifestyle and fitness, requiring Perry to spend two hours at the gym six days a week for three months and adhere to a strict diet. After all, "you have to get the boyfriends, the brothers and the dads to the pageant somehow."
Her interest in sports can't hurt her fitness, either. In high school, Perry played on the girls' basketball team, eventually averaging 12 points per game. She also was a student athletic trainer for the Tribe football team during the 2004 playoff season.
The evening gown, of course, is also a crucial part of the pageant. Perry donned a dress she calls the "pageant mullet" - traditional in the front, but a little different in the back.
"I went for a love-it or hate-it gown," she says. "In the front it's form-fitting all the way down, it was halter and it was sexy and elegant - and then it had this huge train-bustle-thing that came out in the back. It kind of reminded me of a Disney princess."
And like a princess, she's headed for a castle before she competes in Miss America. In this case, her castle is a house with the other 51 contestants, who will participate in a reality television series to air before the pageant in January.
"I tried out for American Idol before -- no dice. I tried out for The Amazing Race before - no dice. So I'm excited for the reality show aspect of it," she says. "Other people say 'lay low' or 'stay in the background.' I'm 6 feet tall; it'll be really hard for me to just blend in."
Perry plans to use her status as a spokesperson and public figure to promote her platform, which is St. Jude's Children's Hospital and cancer research. She learned about the hospital as philanthropy chair for Delta Delta Delta sorority as a sophomore.
"Serving as philanthropy chair was an eye-opening experience to what St. Jude does," she says. "Acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common form of childhood cancer, originally had a survival rate of 4 percent in 1962, when St. Jude opened. Now it's 94 percent. It's that kind of improvement that shows St. Jude is still pushing forward in research."
Between her music, her platform and her basketball skills, it's clear Anna Perry is not the stereotypical "beauty pageant queen." There's a reason Miss America now bills itself as a scholarship competition. Once the pageant cycle is over, Perry plans to go to medical school and make use of that other title she earned: William and Mary graduate.
See Anna compete in Miss America 2009, Jan. 24, 2009 at 8 p.m. Eastern on TLC. For more on Miss America and St. Jude's Children's Hospital, visit www.missamerica.org and www.stjude.org.