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'Not a Cinderella story': Miss America contestants battle hardship to take the stage

Brittney Henry is not your typical beauty queen. Raised by a single mother, Henry didn’t exactly grow up competing in pageants. She was more concerned with holding down after school jobs to help her family make ends meet than she was with performing on a stage before hundreds of people.

“I worked as many hours as I could throughout high school to help pay for our basic expenses,” Henry told TODAY.com. “I tried hard to keep my friends in the dark about our situation but their parent’s could see how bad it really was for us. One friend’s mom bought me a prom dress and gave it to me in secret when she realized that I couldn’t afford to go to prom. I couldn’t even learn to drive because I couldn’t afford to take driver’s ed.”

Despite her difficult upbringing, Henry, 24, is now known across her state as Miss Washington, and will be one of 53 contestants in the 90th Miss America Pageant to be held in Las Vegas' Planet Hollywood on Saturday night (live on ABC at 9 p.m. ET). So how did she go from working as a janitor at the age of 15 to strutting her stuff in the nation’s most competitive beauty pageant?

It all started when she saw an ad for the Miss Sacramento pageant on her college’s scholarship bulletin board. She entered hoping to win money towards her degree, but with no cash to spare on gowns and shoes, she borrowed nearly everything she wore on stage, with the exception of that generously donated high school prom dress.

Competing against girls with years of experience on the pageant circuit, Henry, much to her surprise, took the crown. In the following years, she went on to compete in other pageants, winning several other titles along with enough money to pay for two years of her college education.

And then last year, Henry achieved her biggest win yet — first place in the Miss Washington competition, and a spot at this year’s Miss America Pageant, the first to include an online vote to name one finalist "America's choice."

“Despite my successes, this is not a Cinderella story,” says Henry, who now holds a bachelors degree in education and plans to study for her master’s in the coming year. “I am still faced with huge personal challenges. Just six months ago, my closest aunt died of a drug overdose. But when I speak to kids from families like mine, I tell them that they can control their future. And I pound it in their heads that college is where you can become anything you want to be.”

  • Slideshow Photos

    Julie Jacobson / AP

    Image: Teresa Scanlan

    Miss America 2011

    In dazzling gowns and sexy bikinis, 53 contestants competed for the pageant’s coveted crown.

  • Image: Teresa Scanlan

    Miss America 2011

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    Miss America 2011

    For the Miss America pageant's 90th year, 53 contestants competed in dazzling gowns and bathing suits in Las Vegas, Nevada on Jan. 15, 2011. “The View" host Joy Behar, actress Marilu Henner and country singer Mark Wills were among the seven judges.

    Left: Teresa Scanlan, Miss Nebraska waves to the audience after being crowned Miss America 2011 during the Miss America pageant.

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    Crowning moment

    Teresa Scanlan, Miss Nebraska, is crowned Miss America 2011 during the Miss America pageant. Scanlan won a $50,000 scholarship and a yearlong run with the crown at the competition at the Planet Hollywood casino-resort in Las Vegas, giving the Cornhusker State its first-ever win at the pageant.

    "And I never passed up a cookie on my journey here," Scanlan said.

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  • Image: Miss Nebraska Teresa Scanlan reacts after being announced Miss America 2011 in Las Vegas

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    Taken by surprise

    Miss Nebraska Teresa Scanlan (R), 17, reacts after being announced Miss America 2011 during the Miss America pageant. Miss America 2010 Caressa Cameron (L) prepares to crown her.

    Scanlan plans to study American politics at Patrick Henry College in Virginia after her reign as Miss America. She said she also hoped to attend law school, become a judge and eventually a politician.

    Reuters / Reuters
  • Image: Miss Nebraska Scanlan is mobbed by other contestants after being crowned Miss America 2011 during the Miss America Pageant in Las Vegas

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    Embracing the competition

    Miss Nebraska Teresa Scanlan, 17, is mobbed by other contestants after being crowned Miss America 2011. Scanlan is youngest winner ever in the pageant's history after a night of being judged for poise, talent, fitness and knowledge.

    During the interview portion of the competition, Scanlan told the audience that when it comes to the website Wikileaks, security should come before public access to government information.

    "When it comes to the security of our nation, we have to focus on security first and then people's right to know, because it's so important that everybody who's in our borders is safe and so we can't let things like that happen, and they must be handled properly," she said.

    Reuters / Reuters
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    Puppet master

    Alyse Eady, Miss Arkansas, performs a ventriloquist act to "I Wanna Be a Cowboy Sweetheart" in the talent competition during the Miss America pageant.

    "It's a lot easier to do than it looks," Eady said of ventriloquism in an interview with the Southwest Times Record. "You put your teeth together, but P is a hard letter, and so are B, W and M, because people move their lips on those letters. You have to mix sounds, sometimes, to get those letters and words."

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  • Image: Ashley Melnick

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    Strutting it

    Miss Texas, Ashley Melnick, walks on stage during the swimsuit competition during the 2011 Miss America pageant. Melnick introduced herself as being from "the home of Superbowl XLV, where everything's super in my state."

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  • Image: Miss Nebraska Teresa Scanlan plays the piano during the talent portion of the Miss America Pageant in Las Vegas

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    Struck a chord

    Miss Nebraska Teresa Scanlan, 17, plays "White Water Chopped Sticks" on the piano during the talent portion of the Miss America pageant in the Theatre for the Performing Arts at the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada.

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    Walking the runway

    Teresa Scanlan, Miss Nebraska, is filmed as she competes in the swimsuit competition during the 2011 Miss America pageant. Scanlan went on to be crowned the new Miss America. She's the youngest Miss America since the pageant implemented age limits in 1938.

    Getty Images / Getty Images
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    Glowing in a gown

    Miss New York, Claire Buffie, walks on stage during the evening gown competition during the Miss America pageant. Buffie competed with her "Straight for Equality: Let's Talk" platform, championing for gay rights.

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  • Image: Emoly Wes, Kayla Martell, Djuan Keila Trent, Jalee Fuselier

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    The long stretch

    From left: Emoly Wes, Miss Oklahoma, Kayla Martell, Miss Delaware, Djuan Keila Trent, Miss Kentucky and Jalee Fuselier, Miss Hawaii, wait for their turn to perform in the talent competition during the 2011 Miss America pageant.

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  • Image: Jalee Fuselier, Jacquie Brown, Teresa Scanlan, Emoly West, Alyse Eady,

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    Holding tight

    The five finalists, from left, Jalee Fuselier, Miss Hawaii, Jacquie Brown, Miss Washington, Teresa Scanlan, Miss Nebraska, Emoly West, Miss Oklahoma and Alyse Eady, MIss Arkansas, stand together during the Miss America pageant, Jan. 15, 2011 in Las Vegas.

    Miss Arkansas Alyse Eady won $25,000 as first runner-up, while Miss Hawaii Jalee Fuselier won $20,000 for third place.

    AP / AP
  • Image: Kelsi Crain, Stephanie Denise Steers, Becky MInger, Lauren Werhan

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    Shaking it up

    From left: Miss Louisiana, Kelsi Crain, Miss Oregon, Stephanie Denise Steers, Miss Ohio, Becky Minger and Miss Kansas, Lauren Werhan, dance during the opening number of the 2011 Miss America pageant.

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  • Image: Adrienne Leigh Core

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    Heartfelt

    Miss North Carolina, Adrienne Leigh Core, left, waits for the start of the Miss America pageant, on Jan. 15, 2011, in Las Vegas.

    AP / AP

That Henry even made it to college is still astonishing to her. It was only when a friend’s parents asked her where she was applying – and then signed her up and paid for the SATs – that she even thought about going to college.

Miss New Hampshire Regan Elizabeth Hartley

She secured a place at California State University, Sacramento and spent the summer before her first year playing the violin at Seattle’s Pikes Place Market, with a sign reading “help me get to college.”

“It was only when I got to college, that I realized how big of a deal it was that I was there,” she said. “I remember one night in high school, when I should have been studying for a math final the next day, I was hiding in the closet with my baby sister, trying to keep her quiet as her father threatened my mom with a knife. That is just one example of the type of challenges that many kids from tough backgrounds face. The pageantry has given me a platform to talk about my struggles, and who is in greater need of a role model than kids from struggling families?”

Defeating the bullies
Henry isn’t the only Miss America hopeful to have overcome a difficult period in her life. Miss New Hampshire, Regan Hartley, spent most of her high school years being bullied by girls she thought were her friends. After threatening phone calls and a lot of rough talk on the Internet, Hartley was attacked by several girls in the school cafeteria, ending up with a concussion and a skull fracture.

She immediately transferred to a private school and in her senior year signed up for a local pageant, hoping to win scholarship money for college. It took 16 local competitions until she won her first title, along with $7,000. In the last three years, Hartley has won $30,000 through pageants to put towards her degree in marketing.

As Miss New Hampshire, she has been active in encouraging the state to pass a new law protecting the victims of bullying.

“When I was being bullied I lost who I was,” said Hartly, who is working with MTV on a documentary about bullying. “It was by far the lowest time of my life. I felt no one loved me and had no will to live. Then I started doing pageants and each time I stepped on stage, I got a piece of myself back.”

'Healthy lifestyle'
If you look at a photo of contestant Bree Boyce from several years ago, she doesn't look like the beauty queen she does today. For years she struggled with her weight, topping the scales at 234 pounds. But that was before a wakeup call from her doctor pushed her to lose 110 pounds over three years.

Boyce, 22, went on to become Miss South Carolina, even winning the swimsuit competition in her state’s pageant.

"I'm not on any kind of crazy diet; I'm just living a healthy lifestyle, and that's what I try to promote," Boyce told TODAY.com in July. The pageant contestant was recently featured in People magazine in a feature on people who have lost more than half their size in weight.

What all three of these women have in common is their gratitude to the Miss America Organization for giving them an opportunity to publicly discuss their platforms, which each holds so close to her heart.

“If I don’t win Miss America, I will still come back and continue the work I am doing with underprivileged youth,” said Henry. “When I was growing up, I would never have thought that I would walk across that stage in Las Vegas. Now that it’s a reality, I want to bring this huge dream to other girls.”

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