14 April 2009

Many beauty queens owe their crowns to this coach

Paula Miles of Aiken, S.C., has spent three decades coaching young women for the Miss USA Pageant. She now runs pageants in three states, including both Carolinas and Louisiana. As usual, she'll be in the audience Sunday, when this year's pageant airs 7-9 p.m. on NBC. Luck is on her side, with a track record that includes: four Miss USAs, two Miss Teen USA's, one Miss World, one Miss Universe, 45 finalists, and 11 first runners-up. This year, Kristen Dalton, 22, of Wilmington represents N.C. and Stephanie Smith, 21, of Goose Creek represents S.C.

Following are excerpts of an interview with Miles by reporter Mark Price.

Q. What details can you give us on the Carolinas queens?

Both won (state titles) in November and I know Kristen took a year off from school just to be Miss North Carolina. She has lived it, breathed it, since then. Her mother was Miss North Carolina USA in 1982, Jennie Boger. Stephanie (Miss S.C.) is still working a full-time job as a cosmetologist, so she's doing a lot of her (beauty queen) duties on weekends. She ultimately wants to be an entertainer and sees the pageant as a means to an end. Both she and Kristen have beautiful voices, though there's no performance talent contest in the pageant.

Q. What's the most important lesson you hope they learned the past few months?

Not to focus too much on the clothes and the tools. Beauty queens needed to stay grounded and be true to themselves. It's more about a mind-set and an attitude, learning who you are as a person and what you want to give back to the world. When you get comfortable and confident with that, the rest comes naturally.

Q. When a contestant does badly, how do you comfort them?

I don't go backstage, but they find me afterward. The thing that comes to mind is Caitlin Upton (Miss Teen S.C.) and the famous map question (during the Miss Teen USA pageant). Her answer ended up being a No. 1 video on YouTube. She found me immediately after the pageant. I think the way she handled herself after was amazing. She didn't run or hide. She came right out to the front of the theater, where we all were. She said: “If I hadn't messed up that question, I think I would have won.” I told her: “I think you would have won, too.” But she came back to South Carolina and it was like an immediate media blitz for her and she did well. My best advice for them in situations like that is: Focus, react and be natural.

Q. What's the most surprising moment you've had in a pageant?

Caitlin Upton and that question. I'm glad the camera wasn't on me.

Q. When it comes to the pageant, what makes you most nervous?

When they get ready to announce the semifinals. I crawl to the edge of my seat and grab the hand of whoever is on either side of me … I remember (in 1994) jumping up and down on top of my seat when I had three in the Top 5. Both my earrings fell off. I'm pretty reserved. I know the first time I ever cried with a winner was when Chelsea Cooley (of Charlotte) won Miss USA in 2005.

Q. What will you wear this year?

I never think about it until I pack. I recycle a lot of dresses, so I rarely go out and buy new outfits.

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