There she is, Miss America: A business conversation with Ericka Dunlap
by Kimberly Bailey-Tureaud
At the invitation of the lovely Sue Lowden, Las Vegas Black Image Magazine recently had the wonderful opportunity to attend the Miss America luncheon hosted at Vintner Grill.
Since holding its first pageant in Atlantic City in 1921, the nonprofit Miss America organization has grown into one of the largest scholarship donors in the nation, helping to facilitate more than $45 million in annual cash and tuition assistance for worthy students. Today, it makes its home in Las Vegas, and during the run-up to this year’s pageant, Black Image sat down for a conversation with Ericka Dunlap. When she was crowned Miss America 2004, Dunlap — the first black woman ever to be named Miss Florida — became only the seventh African-American winner in the pageant’s 92-year history. In a candid conversation, Dunlap, now 31, shared her thoughts on such topics as Miss America’s complicated racial history and the rigors of serving as one of the nation’s most visible women.
What was it like being crowned Miss America?
It was very exciting for me, because I got to represent my mother, grandmother and aunts who could not compete for Miss America — because African-Americans were not allowed to participate in the pageant until 1967. And even with that considered, we didn’t get our first black Miss America until Vanessa Williams in 1983.
Explain the business of being Miss America.
The entire year, immediately after being crowned, you become an ambassador for the country and a professional speaker. Being Miss America is quite a job; you have to travel the entire country, and your schedule is arranged for you by the Miss America organization — which you can’t deviate from, even though you are an independent contractor. Your travels are 365 days of the year, and you have to speak on behalf of the organization, sponsors and your platform. My platform was celebrating cultural diversity and inclusion. I was blessed and fortunate to give keynote addresses to many Fortune 500 corporations. Keep in mind that at the time, I was only 21 years of age — and the growth that I experienced was remarkable.
What were some of the challenges encountered competing in the pageant? What were the biggest lessons learned?
I met many challenges while competing in the Miss America pageant. The biggest challenge was being misunderstood, because as a black woman we still fight the battle of whether or not we are considered beautiful by American standards. That is something I still have problems with, because if I am in public without makeup, or dressed casually, people doubt that I was ever Miss America. This occurs when I am introduced to someone who is incredulous that this regular black woman could have had the opportunity. This challenge persists, because some people are still confused by the thought that Miss America is black. Some people literally can’t grasp it, and there have been many times that I have been introduced as “Miss Black America.” I don’t mean any disrespect to that organization; however, I represent the country beyond just my race, and I think that should not only be recognized but celebrated. Also, when it comes to [relating to] other women, we have our own challenges. Many women see me and automatically think, “She is beautiful, but not smart. So, there is no way we can have an intelligent conversation.” I have had several people in the last 10 years comment on how shocked they are that I am intelligent, which is ridiculous. My beauty comes from within, and at the end of the day, a lot of it is smoke and mirrors that consist of hair and makeup. I can make a make a pig look beautiful, but what you can’t do is make somebody have character, integrity, morals and intelligence.
We have learned from Kenya Moore on “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” about the differences between Miss America and Miss USA. How would you describe the differences between the two pageants?
God bless Kenya, but the organizations are so very different. Quite frankly, we have a healthy rivalry, and we are constantly correcting people on the difference. It is said that Miss America is the girl next door and Miss USA is the girl you want next door. The USA Pageant is respectable, but young ladies who are selected often tinker in The Miss America Pageant first, and when they are unsuccessful with being selected, switch over to the Miss USA Pageant. The Miss USA Pageant is much more relaxed, and the ability to win it is a little easier — a bit less of a challenge.
What are your words of advice to girls who would someday like to be crowned Miss America?
There are so many opportunities that can come from the Miss America system. I received over $81,000 in scholarships. However, I would say keep your options open. I enjoyed my tenure as Miss America, in this iconic role, but I can honestly say that there are now so many more options for young women. The most important thing is to emulate the ideals of Miss America — which are service, scholarship and forward thinking. To achieve success, one needs to prioritize goals. A lot of people are devastated when they don’t win a pageant, but there is so much more to life. It is far more important to follow your goals — to be a successful woman, entrepreneur and daughter — than it is to win a crown.