‘Even if I don’t win, I’ve still won’

Emily Miller's peers in the world of national beauty pageants will soon learn that yes, a girl from a small town can make it big.

And that, alone, may prove to give her an advantage as she prepares to participate in the Miss USA Pageant in Las Vegas, NV.

Emily left for Nevada on Friday, in order to take part in a flurry of pre-pageant activities that will be held from May 3 until the night of the final competition on May 16.

She first learned the importance of being able to think quickly on her feet, and to remain composed in front of crowds while participating as a 4-H'er in Achievement Days at the Clay County Fair in Vermillion.

As a 9-year-old, she discovered the importance of being able to describe all of the positive qualities of the chickens she showed at the fair to inquiring judges.

"And that all advanced into things like fashion revue and special foods and the talent show," Emily, 22, told the Plain Talk on a chilly Monday morning, dressed in a familiar South Dakota ensemble that included a jacket and blue jeans.

The daughter of Mike and Joan Miller, she grew up on a farm near Gayville, and is a 2005 graduate of Irene High School. She is certain that the typically rural, small-town activities she participated in while growing up have helped her dreams come true.

"It has always been a dream of mine – I started doing (beauty) pageants while I was in the fifth grade," Emily said. "And it was more of an incentive for me, since I struggled with dyslexia when I was in elementary school. I still do, but I've learned little tips to improve my study habits.

"I always knew," she said, "that one day, I would be on a stage, whether it was Miss America or Miss USA. Finally, it has happened."

Emily qualified for the upcoming Miss USA pageant after being crowned Miss South Dakota USA 2010 at the state pageant held in Brandon last October.

She is currently pursuing a dance performance/choreography major and a double minor in entertainment management and accounting at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Emily has also been awarded a full scholarship to attend and study with the Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Company in Chicago after graduation. Emily Anne will graduate Suma Cum Laude next December after taking a semester off to fulfill her duties as Miss South Dakota USA.

She was crowned Miss Pre-Teen South Dakota in 1995. "That was the first pageant I ever won, and I went to nationals in Tennessee. So that was my first eye-opening experience at a higher level while I was young. After that, about every four or five years I would participate in what was known as a scholastic pageant rather than a beauty pageant," Miller said.

During her high school years, she began taking part in Miss South Dakota pageants.

"And last October, I won Miss South Dakota USA. It was the very first time I competed in it, and it was quite an honor," Miller said. "People don't realize how much work goes into pageants. You have to be well spoken, you have to have poise – you even have to practice walking. You have to have that good presence that carries across to the audience."

This year's Miss USA pageant will be held at the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino in Las Vegas on Sunday, April 16. It will be televised nationally from 6 to 8 p.m. that night on NBC.

Emily said preliminary competition activity may be seen on the Web during the week leading up to the pageant by logging on to www.missusa.com.

"People will be able to watch all of the contestants in those preliminary pageants," she said. "It is during those prelims that the top 15 contestants are chosen, who will compete at Miss USA on May 16."

Each contestant from all 50 states and the District of Columbia will be judged in three categories: swimsuit, evening gown and interview.

"There is no talent competition, and if you win Miss USA, you get a chance to compete in the Miss Universe pageant," Emily said.

None of the participants have been told who the judges of the upcoming pageant will be. "They pretty much try to keep that a secret," she said.

Reading newspapers and watching CNN has become part of Emily's daily ritual as she prepares for the upcoming pageant.

"You want to be as current as possible with all of the news," she said, noting that contestants must be prepared to speak about a wide range of topics during the interview portion of the pageant. "You may be asked about anything, ranging from health care to Tiger Woods. You never know what you're going to be asked."

Emily realizes she may ultimately return to South Dakota after May 16 without a crown. She hopes, however, to make history.

"It has been 37 years since a Miss South Dakota USA has made the top 15," she said. "And I feel that I am well prepared. I think everything I've done during my life – from 4-H to dancing – has lead up to this."

Emily knows, too, that she is fortunate to be part of an elite group of young women who will have unique opportunities to explore no matter the outcome of the pageant.

She is certain her experiences growing up on a farm, and being active in 4-H, have played a part in the adventure she is currently experiencing.

"What helps while you are preparing for something like this is to look back at your personal experiences," Emily said. "One of the things in my background that I think is unique is that I was the South Dakota junior poultry judge champion. Not too many contestants can say that they can judge poultry.

"I like to be able to say that I'm comfortable being able to go out on the farm and do the chores I need to do, and then dress up and be pretty the next moment. You can transform yourself, and I think that's what the judges will be looking for. They're not looking for a person who is one-dimensional," she said. "Being active in 4-H has taught me a lot. It has taught me how to speak in front of a crowd. Fashion revue taught me how to sew and how to walk on stage and how to have presence. And showing chickens taught me to expect the unexpected. You never know what's going to happen."

Emily added that she is fortunate to be raised by parents who have taught her to "roll with the punches, to keep going, to keep your head up, and to truly know who you are. I think that's why I'm so ready for the Miss USA pageant."

She knows, too, that she is lucky to have grown up in South Dakota.

"Many people have asked me 'What's the best part of being from South Dakota?' And I tell them how everyone is family, whether you are blood related or not. It seems that everybody cares about you."

Emily has other goals not yet fulfilled. After graduating this December, she'd like to pursue a career in dance. She pictures herself one day performing as a Radio City Rockette, or a dancer on Broadway.

For now, however, she is embarking in what she describes as a "win-win" experience. Soon she will be standing on the Miss USA pageant stage in Las Vegas, the sole representative of South Dakota.

"It's kind of crazy. Even if I don't win, I've still won. I've reached my dream," Emily said.

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