16 April 2009

Cover Story: Miss Utah USA 2009 vies for Miss USA while juggling homework and philanthropy.

Imagine stepping out on a stage, all eyes on you, wearing nothing but a smile and a swimsuit. The lights and cameras blind you as you strut down the stage. And then, a judge asks you your opinion of Obama's economic policy, to which you either deliver a flawless reply, or go home.

This is virtually what 22-year-old Utah resident Laura Chukanov will be doing at the Miss USA pageant, which airs live on NBC on April 19. At least, this is what she'll be doing if she makes it into the finals. For this, Chukanov is ready. After all, she's been preparing for this ever since she was crowned Miss Utah USA 2009 last year, which automatically qualified her for the Miss USA pageant.

And you've got to hand it to Chukanov, a Bulgarian native who has lived in America for 18 years, for breaking into the pageant scene on her own. It was just five years ago that the rookie queen started competing to "challenge" herself.

"In high school, I was always the shy one," says the confident brunette (without so much as an "um" or "uh") during a phone interview. "I started doing pageants when I got to the University of Utah to get myself out of my element. It was like a clean slate."

No pageant moms here. Chukanov's first try-out was for Miss Sandy, where she placed as First Runner Up. Two years later, she showcased her beauty in another pageant, in which she took Second Runner Up. Last year, at only her third pageant, she won first place, claiming her current title, Miss Utah USA 2009. Now, she wants to show her award-winning beauty to the nation by winning Miss USA, a title that could get her national recognition as a spokesperson for the Susan G. Komen foundation, among other opportunities.

"If I win, it will be absolutely incredible," she says. "It would be a big step toward a big career, and something you can use to benefit you and other people. But I'm not competing just to win. My biggest goal is to be myself."

But judging by Chukanov's list of accomplishments, being herself is impressive on its own. The beauty queen speaks three languages: English, Bulgarian and Spanish (she can also understand Russian); volunteers with nonprofit organizations like No More Homeless Pets; and balances a job at the University of Utah's Career Services with school. She'll graduate from the U this May with a degree in International Studies, complete with a double minor in Leadership and Art History. Chukanov also plans to attend graduate school to pursue nonprofit management or international relations. It's hard to believe that on top of it all, Chukanov still has time for pageants. Nationally televised, instant-fame-granting pageants.

As of press time, Chukanov was already in Las Vegas smiling, strutting and speaking her way through Miss USA's preliminary competitions, which start two-and-a-half weeks before the final televised event. So from now until April 19, the women fight for a spot in the final 15 (narrowed down from 50), the group that gets to compete in the broadcasted pageant.

Judging by her regimen, Chukanov's chances of getting into the national spotlight are good. She says she's spent most of 2009 working out, eating right and staying on top of current events. Yet, she's still a little nervous about one particular competition.

"The hardest part of pageants for me is the swimsuit competition," says the 5-foot-ten-inch Chukanov. "If I want a cookie, I have to tell myself, 'You can't have that right now.' But it's not about withholding; just be smart about it. I have most of my carbs in the morning to give me energy for my workout in afternoon, and I try to stay away from all the bad stuff in the evening."

Savvy diet advice is just the first piece of the pie. Keep reading to find more confidence and beauty tips from the bold brunette who aims to put Utah on pageant map, Miss Utah USA.

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