Tattoos to Tourette's: Four Miss America hopefuls to watch

Reuters
Miss Kansas (left), Miss New York and Miss Iowa at the preliminary rounds of the Miss America pageant.

A med school hopeful who has battled with bulimia. An Army soldier with tattoos. A 20-year-old with Tourette syndrome. A vocalist born without her left forearm. These are just a few of the ladies who will take the Miss America stage in Atlantic City on Sunday night to vie for the crown. 

This year’s 53 contestants will bring more than well-coiffed hair and sunny smiles to the annual beauty pageant, which kicked off in 1921. Several women are sharing their diverse, sometimes challenging, life experiences with the world, and using Miss America as a platform for bringing awareness to causes close to their hearts. Health, in particular, is on many contestant's minds: Their platforms range from cancer advocacy, to HIV/AIDS education, to childhood obesity prevention

As the contestants finish up the competition's preliminary rounds in Atlantic City and head to the finale, which airs at 9 p.m. on ABC, here are four candidates with particularly inspiring stories to tell. 

Carlo Allegri / Reuters
Miss Kansas, Theresa Vail, is seen on stage during the bathing suit portion of the preliminary round.

First to flaunt tattoos
Twenty-two-year-old Theresa Vail is breaking the Miss America mold as the first contestant to make her way down the catwalk with visible tattoos. She says that showing off her tats, which include an inscription of the Serenity Prayer and the military medical insignia, fits in with her platform of "empowering women, overcoming stereotypes and breaking barriers." 

"What a hypocrite I would be if I covered the ink. With my platform, how could I tell other women to be fearless and be true to themselves if I can’t do the same?" Vail wrote in a blog post on Aug. 22. "Now, had my platform been something entirely different, maybe the tables would be turned. Maybe. But I am who I am, tattoos and all."

But tattoos aren't the only thing that make Vail an atypical contestant. She's also an archery expert and, as a National Guard sergeant, she's the second military servicemember to compete for the crown. In the future, she hopes to become a dentist for the Army. 

Carlo Allegri / Reuters
Miss Iowa, Nicole Kelly, was born missing half of her left arm.

Born with a birth defect
There's been much buzz about Miss Iowa Nicole Kelly, a 23-year-old born without her left forearm. Kelly has never let her condition prevent her from living a normal, active life: Growing up she played baseball, swam and danced. And while she hopes to use the pageant to advocate for people born with disabilities, she says her birth defect is not the reason she's made it this far. 

"The reason I'm here is not because I'm a public interest story," Kelly told The Associated Press on Monday. "I'm here not because I look different but because I have the intelligence, I have the ability and all the things that Miss America needs to have."

Carlo Allegri / Reuters
Miss Arizona, Jennifer Smestad, competes in a preliminary round. Her platform is Tourette syndrome awareness.

Overcame Tourette's
Miss Arizona Jennifer Smestad, a 20-year-old college student at Grand Canyon University, was diagnosed at the age of 10 with Tourette syndrome, a neurological disorder that causes involuntary movement and speech. According to her Miss Arizona profile, Smestad found a successful treatment for Tourette's five years after she was diagnosed, and now works to educate other children and families about the condition. 

"I am beyond blessed to be able to spread awareness and educate others about something that is so personal to me," she wrote on Facebook after visiting an elementary school class on Aug. 24. 

Smestad's platform is "Tourette Syndrome Awareness and Advocacy." In the future, she hopes to obtain a master's of science in exercise and wellness and use that degree for a career in media. 

Carlo Allegri / Reuters
Nina Davuluri is the first Indian-American to earn the Miss New York crown.

Battled with bulimia
Just two days before the pageant, contestant Nina Davuluri was still making headlines. An article published on Friday in the New York Post’s Page Six column claimed that shortly after being crowned Miss New York, the 24-year-old was caught on tape calling Mallory Hagan “fat as f---.” Davuluri and Miss America representatives denied Page Six’s claims.

The first Indian-American to win the Miss New York title, Nina Davuluri recently opened up about her own battle with bulimia during her final semesters of college at the University of Michigan. "I had bad asthma, I gained a lot of weight, and I stepped back and thought: I'm not going to live long unless I change," she told Syracuse.com

She soon transformed her lifestyle by starting an exercise program and following a healthy diet. Now she wants to attend medical school to become a physician, according to her Miss America profile

Davuluri will also share her Indian heritage with viewers on Friday: Her talent is "classic Bollywood fusion" and platform is "celebrating diversity through cultural competence."

  • Slideshow Photos

    Mel Evans / AP

    Image: Nina Davuluri, Kira Kazantsev

    Miss America winners through the years

    In honor of the upcoming 93rd annual Miss America pageant, take a look at the lovely ladies who have seized the coveted crown since the competition’s start in 1921.

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    1921 — Margaret Gorman -

    In honor of the Miss America pageant, take a look at the lovely ladies who have seized the coveted crown since the competition's start in 1921.

    After being chosen Miss Washington, D.C. in a contest, Margaret Gorman traveled to Atlantic City to compete in the "Inter-City Beauty" contest. She won the amateur prize and was then judged agains two other winners: a local "amateur" and a "professional" model. Gorman outshined both women, and took home the Golden Mermaid trophy before returning to high school in D.C.

    A year later, she returned to Atlantic City for the contest, at which point she was crowned Miss America after it was decided that her other titles were too awkward. She is the only contestant to receive her crown a year after the win.

    Gorman married in her mid-twenties and became a life-long resident of D.C. She passed away in October 1995 at 90.

    Courtesy of the Miss America Organization / Courtesy of the Miss America Organization
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    1922 — Mary Katherine Campbell -

    Mary Katherine Campbell of Ohio was crowned Miss Columbus at the age of 17, and went on to win the Miss America pageant. She was the first high school graduate to take the title, and she later enrolled at Ohio State University as an art major.

    She seized the Miss America title again in 1923 and is the only contestant to have won twice.

    Courtesy of the Miss America Org / Courtesy of the Miss America Org
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    1925 — Fay Lanphier -

    From Oakland, Calif., Fay Lanphier won the title of Miss Santa Cruz 1924 and finished fourth in the Miss America pageant. The following year she competed again as Miss California, becoming the first Miss America to represent her entire state.

    A 1925 article published in the New York Graphic and syndicated in 86 other newspapers claimed that the pageant was prearranged for Lanphier to win, which caused much controversy. The article was not retracted until Sept. 22, 1928.

    Even in the midst of controversy, Lanphier went on a 16-week dance tour, earning an estimated $50,000. She passed away in 1959 at the age of 53.

    Courtesy of the Miss America Org / Courtesy of the Miss America Org
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    1926 — Norma Smallwood -

    Hailing from Tulsa, Okla., Norma Smallwood was the first American Indian to wear the Miss America crown. She became a popular poster girl, reportedly earning $100,000 during her year-long reign. Smallwood passed away in May 1966 at the age of 57.

    Here she is crowned by “King Neptune.”

    Courtesy of the Miss America Org / Courtesy of the Miss America Org
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    1933 — Marian Bergeron -

    An established vocalist from West Haven, Conn., Marian Bergeron won the Miss America pageant at the age of 15. With much commotion going on as the votes were tabulated, Bergeron didn’t realize she was the winner until a dressing assistant placed the banner on her.

    Bergeron became a public speaker and supporter of the pageant. She died on Oct. 22, 2002, in Ohio.

    Courtesy of the Miss America Org / Courtesy of the Miss America Org
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    1935 — Henrietta Leaver -

    Brought up during the Great Depression, Henrietta Leaver had to drop out of high school to earn money for her family. At her grandmother’s suggestion, she entered the Miss Pittsburgh contest and won. She then tap-danced her way to the Miss America title in a silver-and-green evening gown.

    After posing for Pittsburgh sculptor Frank Vittor, she was dismayed to discover that his statue depicted her nude, when she had actually posed for him in a swimsuit. She traveled to Los Angeles to escape the publicity, and embarked on a brief modeling career there. But Leaver eventually moved back to the East Coast to raise her two daughters. She passed away in Sept. 1993 at the age of 77.

    Courtesy of the Miss America Org / Courtesy of the Miss America Org
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    1940 — Frances Burke -

    Miss Pennsylvania Frances Burke had a brief foray in the film and modeling world, before she gave it up to raise her own family in Philadelphia. She has been married to Lawrence Kenney for 50 years, with whom she raised four children. Burke volunteered at a nursing home and was active in the PTA at her children's school.

    "The Pageant was the highlight of my young life. The honor of being Miss America launched a successful modeling career, gave a jump-start to my self-esteem, and enabled me to meet many wonderful people along the way," she said.

    Courtesy of the Miss America Org / Courtesy of the Miss America Org
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    1941 — Rosemary LaPlanche -

    Rosemary LaPlanche won the Miss California pageant at the age of 16, even though rules established in 1938 dictated that participants must be 18 to enter. She was named first runner-up in the Miss America pageant of 1940, but competed again in 1941, when she won the title. After some complaints were made, a new rule was enacted making contestants only able to participate in the competition once.

    Throughout her time as Miss America, LaPlanche traveled with the USO, selling war bonds, and signed with RKO films. She acted in over 50 films during her lifetime. In the late 1940s, she had her own radio show and was one of the first female television hosts.

    Courtesy of the Miss America Org / Courtesy of the Miss America Org
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    Bess Myerson in evening wear -

    For the evening wear portion of the competition, Myerson wore a gown seemingly inspired by Glinda the Good Witch.

    Courtesy of the Miss America Org / Courtesy of the Miss America Org
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    1945 — Bess Myerson -

    Miss New York Bess Myerson was the first and only Jewish Miss America. After her reign, Myerson remained very involved in New York City politics and was part of the enactment of open-dating and unit pricing in supermarkets.

    She devoted her life to numerous civic and philanthropic organizations, serving as National Commissioner to the Anti-Defamation League and campaigning for civil rights.

    Courtesy of the Miss America Org / Courtesy of the Miss America Org
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    1951 — Yolande Betbeze -

    Though the pageant itself was held in 1950, Miss Alabama Yolanda Betbeze was made Miss America 1951 because the majority of her reign would fall in that year.

    A devout Catholic raised in a convent, Betbeze is most notable for refusing to pose in a swimsuit after winning the title. "I'm an opera singer, not a pin-up!" she said. Because of her decision, Catalina, the swimsuit pageant sponsor, decided to withdraw its support, at which point rival pageant Miss USA was created.

    Courtesy of the Miss America Org / Courtesy of the Miss America Org
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    1952 — Colleen Hutchins -

    Miss Utah Colleen Hutchins took the Miss America crown just before the pageant was broadcast on television. Standing over 6 feet tall in heels, she was an accomplished athlete working her way towards a master’s degree in drama.

    After Hutchins’ reign, she performed on Broadway and in Europe before moving to Germany and then Bel Air, Calif., with her husband, who was a physician and member of the New York Knicks. Together they raised four All-American College and Olympic athletes. In her later years, Hutchins devoted herself to many philanthropic causes. She passed away on March 24, 2010 in Newport Beach, Calif.

    Courtesy of the Miss America Org / Courtesy of the Miss America Org
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    1955 — Lee Meriwether -

    Miss California Lee Meriwether joined the pageant scene while attending the City College of San Francisco, when she was nominated to participate by a fraternity. “I never would have entered on my own,” she said.

    After her reign as Miss America, Meriwether joined the TODAY show as a "TODAY Girl” before making her debut in the film world. She had a successful acting career in film and television, most famously playing Betty in the series “Barnaby Jones” from 1973 to 1980.

    Courtesy of the Miss America Org / Courtesy of the Miss America Org
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    Contestants of 1955 -

    Pageant contestants participating in Miss America 1955 pose for a photograph.

    Courtesy of the Miss America Or / Courtesy of the Miss America Or
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    1960 — Lynda Mead -

    Lynda Lee Mead was a graduate of the University of Mississippi, where she was a member of Chi Omega sorority. Her Miss America predecessor was her very own sorority sister, who was the first winner to hail from Mississippi.

    Mead is now the owner and president of French Country Imports in France, and she also runs Shea-Moore Design, an interior design firm. She has three grown children with her husband, John.

    Courtesy of the Miss America Org / Courtesy of the Miss America Org
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    1962 — Maria Fletcher -

    Representing North Carolina, Maria Fletcher was a Rockette at Radio City Music Hall before she was crowned Miss America.

    Fletcher once wore her pageant gown on the Miss America float at the Orange Bowl Parade. She was completely unaware when her gown caught on fire and a bystander quickly stomped the flames out, saving Fletcher and her gown.

    Courtesy of the Miss America Org / Courtesy of the Miss America Org
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    1965 — Vonda Van Dyke -

    From Phoenix, Ariz., Vonda Van Dyke was the first contestant to appear as a ventriloquist for the talent portion of the competition, as well as the first to speak about her faith on national television.

    After her reign, she became a singer and authored two books while attending the University of California Los Angeles. Since college, she has published three more books and recorded four albums. Now retired, Van Dyke resides in Southern California.

    Courtesy of the Miss America Org / Courtesy of the Miss America Org
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    1970 — Pamela Eldred -

    Miss Michigan Pam Eldred graduated from the University of Detroit Percy and continued traveling as a dancer, model, and spokesperson after her tenure as Miss America. She later decided to stay close to home and opened an image consulting business in West Bloomfield, Mich., with the skills she had gained working as a color consultant and professional aesthetician.

    Eldred worked on behalf of several charities, especialy those involved with special needs families. Now retired, she splits her time between Michigan and Florida with her husband Norman N. Robbins.

    Courtesy of the Miss America Org / Courtesy of the Miss America Org
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    7/23/84 - 9/15/84 — Suzette Charles -

    Suzette Charles, Miss New Jersey, stepped in for Vanessa Williams after her resignation. Charles was a child performer, who landed a spot on "Sesame Street" and "The Electric Company" at age 8.

    Since then, she’s performed on several soap operas and displayed her vocal talents on tours with major performers like Frank Sinatra and Stevie Wonder. She now has two children with her husband, Dr. Leonard Bley.

    Courtesy of the Miss America Org / Courtesy of the Miss America Org
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    1984 — Vanessa Williams -

    Miss New York Vanessa Williams was the first African American to win Miss America, and took home awards for both the swimsuit and talent competition. Ten months into her reign, Williams resigned after private nude photos taken by a photographer were made public. However, she was allowed to keep her crown and scholarship money.

    Williams went on to become a famous singer and performer, selling over 15 million albums and acting in numerous films and television shows, including “Desperate Housewives.” She has four children and supports the Special Olympics among other various philanthropic organizations.

    Courtesy of the Miss America Org / Courtesy of the Miss America Org
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    1985 — Sharlene Wells -

    Born in Paraguay, Miss Utah Sharlene Wells is the only foreign-born, bilingual Miss America. At the 1985 pageant, she played the Paraguayan harp and sang in Spanish for a record audience of over 100 million.

    After graduating magna cum laude from BYU, she became one of the first women to work for ESPN on-air in 1987. She’s earned an Emmy nomination for her work and the Miller Lite Women’s Sports Journalism award. A published author, she has been the partner and chief marketing officer of StoryRock, Inc., since 2005.

    Courtesy of the Miss America Org / Courtesy of the Miss America Org
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    1990 — Debbye Turner -

    It took seven years and competitions in two states, but Miss Missouri Debbye Turner Bell finally nabbed the Miss America crown in 1990. She is now a staff correspondent for CBS News, a position she has held since 2001, and is known as resident veterinarian for “The Early Show.” She earned a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia in May 1991.

    Courtesy of the Miss America Org / Courtesy of the Miss America Org
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    1995 — Heather Whitestone -

    Miss Alabama Heather Whitestone was the first deaf woman to wear the crown. She started the STARS program, which helps others find “Success Through Action and Realization of your Dreams,” and has traveled around the globe participating in campaigns to identify early hearing loss. In 2011, she gained some of her hearing back with the help of a cochlear implant.

    Whitestone has penned four books and raised three sons with her husband John. She was a spokesperson for the Helen Keller Foundation for Research and Education from 1995 to 2002.

    Courtesy of the Miss America Org / Courtesy of the Miss America Org
  • Heather Renee French (R), Miss Kentucky, reacts as

    Miss America winners through the years

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    2000 — Heather Renee French -

    Miss Kentucky Heather French won the first crown of the new millennium on a platform of raising awareness of homeless veterans. At the end of her year as Miss America, she won the Woman of Achievement Award and, most recently, was given the Purple Heart Recognition Award for her advocacy for veterans’ issues.

    In 2001, she gave birth to her first daughter, Harper Renee, with husband Kentucky Lt. Governor Stephen Henry. She’s currently a published children’s book author and the executive director of the Heather French Foundation for Veterans, Inc.

    AFP-Getty Images / AFP-Getty Images
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    2005 — Deidre Downs -

    Miss Alabama Deidre Downs got involved in the pageant world to finance her education at the University of Virginia, after giving up her volleyball scholarship to focus on her education. A Rhodes Scholar finalist, she won awards for her community service efforts and graduated magna cum laude from Samford University.

    When Downs’ 16-month reign came to an end in 2006, she continued traveling as a spokesperson for hearing health campaign Sound Effects and shared her own experiences with hearing loss and wearing a digital hearing aid. In 2006, she enrolled in medical school and plans on becoming a pediatrician.

    Courtesy of the Miss America Org / Courtesy of the Miss America Org
  • 2010 Miss America Pageant

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    2010 — Caressa Cameron -

    Miss Virginia Caressa Cameron won the talent portion of the 2010 pageant and competed on a platform of HIV/AIDS awareness. During her time as Miss America, she spoke to more than 10,000 students across the country and received the President’s Volunteer Service Award for her efforts in spreading AIDS education awareness to middle schools.

    Cameron is currently getting her degree in broadcast communications at Virginia Commonwealth University and would like to become a news anchor.

    Getty Images for Planet Hollywoo / Getty Images for Planet Hollywoo
  • 2011 Miss America Pageant

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    2011 — Teresa Scanlan -

    Miss Nebraska Teresa Scanlan won the Miss America crown at the age of 17, becoming the youngest contestant to win in recent pageant history. She was also the first woman from Nebraska to hold the title.

    Scanlan recently revealed that she suffered from depression throughout her tenure as Miss America, which she has since overcome. Now 20, she is enrolled at Patrick Henry College and hopes to one day become a criminal prosecutor.

    Getty Images / Getty Images
  • 2012 Miss America Pageant

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    2012 — Laura Kaeppeler -

    Miss Wisconsin Laura Kaeppeler, 25, was the second Miss America winner from her state. During her time as Miss America, she logged 20,000 miles per month, worked with organizations that advocate for the children of incarcerated parents, and supported the military.

    Kaeppeler is known for her beautiful singing voice, which she’s used at many sporting events. She continues to perform and mentor, and plans to put her scholarship money toward law school.

    Getty Images / Getty Images
  • 2013 Miss America Pageant

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    2013 — Mallory Hytes Hagan -

    Miss New York Mallory Hagan, 23, tap-danced her way to the crown in 2013. The Brooklyn resident competed on a platform of child sexual abuse prevention and hopes to one day become a global marketing director of a cosmetics company. She attended the Fashion Institute of Technology.

    Getty Images / Getty Images
  • Image: The 2015 Miss America Pageant Finals

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    2014 — Kira Kazantsev -

    Kira Kazantsev, newly crowned Miss America 2015 walks the runway at Atlantic City Boardwalk Hall on September 14, 2014 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Her victory marked the third year in a row that a contestant from her state has walked away with the crown.

    For her talent performance, Kazantsev said she was inspired by the 2012 movie "Pitch Perfect," she sang Pharrell Williams' "Happy" while sitting cross-legged on the stage and banging a red plastic cup on the floor.

    Getty Images Contributor / Getty Images Contributor



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