S.C. pageant culture is burning up

The StateJuly 8, 2013 

Instead of hanging out at the beach with friends laughing through endless summer nights before leaving for college, Rachel Wyatt, a recent Wren High School graduate, has been performing at pageants across the country.

Of late, the reigning Miss America’s Outstanding Teen has been to Iowa, Utah, Minnesota, Texas and West Virginia.

“I’m on the summer tour right now,” Wyatt, a Piedmont native, said. “I just get to stop by the house to repack the suitcase pretty much.”

At each pageant stop, Wyatt gets a similar reaction from the people she meets: “Oh, you’re from South Carolina.”

In the pageant world, it’s cool to be from the Palmetto State, because the state’s pageant culture is red hot. In recent national pageants, state representatives have held their own with the best in the country.

“We’re doing pretty well,” said Wyatt, a lyrical dancer who won the national crown in Orlando in August. “I’ve seen a lot of state pageants and I can honestly say South Carolina has something special.”

When she won Miss South Carolina Teen, Wyatt, who will attend Clemson, knelt on one knee, and with her elbow on her other knee and a fist to her head, she did what is commonly known as Tebowing. It’s the move Tim Tebow, an NFL player, does after scoring touchdowns. A clip of Wyatt Tebowing aired on CNN.

The state’s latest emergence began in 2011 when Bree Boyce was crowned Miss South Carolina. Boyce, who had lost more than 100 pounds through strict dieting and exercise, shared her story on the “Today” show, “Good Morning America,” “Inside Edition,” “The View” and in magazines such as People and Southern Living.

Boyce was a top 12 semifinalist at Miss America.

Ali Rogers, Miss South Carolina 2012, was one of two contestants remaining on the Planet Hollywood stage in Las Vegas at the Miss America pageant in January. Rogers and Mallory Hagan of New York held hands as they awaited the announcement.

“When the moment got there, that’s when it finally hit me like, ‘Holy cow, I could potentially win Miss America’,” Rogers said.

Hagan was crowned Miss America, a shock to Rogers’ obviously biased fan base. But they had a point.

Rogers – and the Miss South Carolina pageant – were featured prominently on “Pageant Confidential: The Road to Miss America,” a special edition of “20/20” that preceded the Miss America broadcast. The cameras followed Rogers to her hometown of Laurens, capturing her in the kitchen while her mother cooked a meal. They also shot her working out, and Rogers even had one-on-one time with the show’s host, Lara Spencer.

Rogers performed with ease in front of an estimated live viewing audience of 15 million. She flirted with the camera as she walked out in her swimsuit, and when the pageant needed a shot of energy, Rogers’ jazzy rendition of The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” had the right amount of pep.

A source told The State that Hagan interviewed “extremely well” with the judges. “She was flawless,” the person, who asked not to be named, said.

For Rogers, whose platform was “Making a Difference for Children with Disabilities,” second place isn’t so bad.

“What I’m most proud of is more people know about the Miss America Organization and what the job of Miss South Carolina has allowed me to do,” she said. “It’s not just another pageant. That has been one of my personal goals this year, to let people know it’s not just another title.

“I’ve been able to translate the recognition to do more work, to reach more people.”

Last month Megan Pinckney didn’t win the Miss USA title, but she did continue the recent exceptional showing of S.C. representatives. Pinckney, a Charleston native, was the fifth runner-up to Miss Connecticut, Erin Brady.

“We’ve just shown people not to forget about South Carolina,” Pinckney said.

Pinckney, a University of South Carolina student, and Rogers, who will resume classes at Clemson University in the fall after taking a year off, are friends. They were announced together at the Clemson-USC game in November.

“It was a good year for both of us,” Pinckney said. “I knew I had big shoes to fill.”

The last time state beauty queens had a similar run of success was two decades ago, capped by Columbia’s Kimberly Aiken being crowned Miss America in 1994.

That same year, Lu Parker won Miss USA and was a top 10 finalist at Miss Universe. Others who had success in the ’90s include Audra Wallace, Miss SC USA 1992, who was the second runner-up at Miss USA, and Lauren Poppell, Miss SC USA 1999, who placed in the top five at Miss USA.

You could argue that the current pageant streak goes back eight years to Erika Powell, who has represented the state twice on the national stage. She won Miss SC in 2005 and placed in the top 10 at Miss America. Seven years later, she won Miss SC USA. In 2008, Taylor Hanna Fitch was the MAO Teen winner.

Chaz Ellis, an executive administrator of the Miss South Carolina Organization, pointed out that the South is historically known for pageants, but he didn’t know what to attribute the state’s recent run to.

“The girls are stepping it up and want the national recognition,” Ellis said, adding that pageant prep teams are important for success. “At the end of the day, it’s the girls who (are) competing.”

Before Boyce, though, the last time the national media was so focused on a contestant from the state was when Caite Upton, then-known as Caitlin Upton, wobbled through an answer at the 2007 Miss USA Teen pageant.

Upton’s Twitter bio embraces her YouTube-era infamy: “Yea ... I’m the map girl ... But there’s more to me than ya’ll think! Follow my journey! ... and such as ...”

Upton might’ve been upstaged this year by Miss Utah USA Marissa Powell. Her incoherent answer to a question about income inequality has been viewed more than 500,000 times on YouTube. Like Upton, Powell, who also sang her answer on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” was able to appear on “Today” to try again.

The day after Powell’s gaffe, Upton, who is a model and actress based in Los Angeles, retweeted mentions such as, “What’s up with U.S. Americans lately? Love the way you’ve handled that. If you can’t laugh at urself, you’ll never love life.”

Nobody in the pageant world, though, is laughing at the success of the recent S.C. pageant winners.

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