Tara Dawn Holland Christensen, Miss America 1997, says the pageant winner is watched not only for a year but for a lifetime. "No other program gives such a voice to a woman," Christensen says. "When I was at the pageant I cared nothing about the crown, the money, the glitz or the glamour. I realized this was my opportunity to make a difference for everything from literacy to abstinence. There is something about the crown that makes people listen to what you have to say."

Debbye Turner, Miss America in 1990, says she competed in order to earn funds for veterinary school. After seven years of seeking to enter the national pageant, she finally qualified in her last year of eligibility at age 24. As she received the national crown, Turner looked toward heaven and thanked the Lord. "It all happened in God's timing," she says. "I wouldn't have been ready if I had won sooner."

Erin Moss, the current Miss Michigan, says she competed to gain speaking opportunities. Moss, the daughter of a Church of God pastor, eventually wants to become a motivational speaker through a parachurch ministry. Traveling around Michigan has enabled her to speak before numerous Christian groups and churches.

"God brought me to this point to do more than just talk about something everybody agrees with."
—Erika Harold, 2003

College scholarships motivated current Miss Indiana Tangra Riggle, the oldest of 11 children, to appear in beauty pageants. She has received $20,000 to help with college expenses, including $4,000 for winning the talent competition at last September's Miss America contest with her vocal rendition of "God Bless America."

The state title also has helped Riggle secure money for computers for at-risk youth in low-income areas. "The Miss America organization opened doors to do things I care about," Riggle says. "I always had a voice, but now because of the state crown I have a microphone. Miss Indiana is a platform to effectively minister to many."

Nicole Johnson, Miss America 1999, says the scholarships that accompanied her title financed her bachelor's and master's degrees. Johnson, who has Type I diabetes, has used her fame to write books about the disease. "Where else in the world can a 24-year-old woman have her voice heard on such vital matters?" she asks.

The road to the national title is rewarding, but it can be arduous. More than 12,000 women participate in local and state pageants annually, making the competition fierce. By the time she won Miss Illinois last June, Harold had devoted hundreds of hours to preparing for the pageants.

Harold says she experienced incredible peace the night of her final state pageant. "Sometimes we have a tendency to pray 'Thy will be done,' when we really mean 'if it's my will,'" she says. "But that night I prayed I would be able to accept whatever God had planned for my life. If I didn't win the money to pay for school that night, I knew that God would provide it some other way."

subhead>A culture war of her own

Within the first week of her reign, Harold appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman, The O'Reilly Factor, Good Morning America, Live with Regis and Kelly, and CBS's The Early Show, where contributor Debbye Turner interviewed her. Later in 2002 she appeared on The Hollywood Squares plus sang the national anthem at Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Bears football games.

Because she has been a youth advocate speaker since age 18, Harold is accustomed to extensive traveling, early wake-up calls, and late-night appearances. She will travel approximately 20,000 miles each month during her time in office.

However, Harold is not as accustomed to having her every word monitored. Although she won the Miss Illinois title with an abstinence platform, state pageant officials last year required contestants to sign a contract that if they advanced to the national level they would adopt the cause of youth violence prevention. Harold agreed, figuring that her firsthand experience with racial and sexual harassment made such a platform a natural fit. But she also determined that a message of saying no to sex before marriage could be incorporated into youth violence prevention talks.