On Their Toes: Three From Moore Compete for Miss N.C.
Eighteen-year-old Laura Puleo wears several hats: student, volunteer, valedictorian, ballerina. But none brings her quite as much recognition as the hat -- or crown, actually -- of Miss Moore County 2008.
"It's been wonderful," Puleo says. "I've gotten to know the county better than I ever have, even though I've lived here all my life."
On Saturday, she departed for the weeklong state pageant in Raleigh, a place where the mascara and hairspray flow like milk and honey, hoping to emerge with another crown: Miss North Carolina.
Puleo shares that dream with two other Miss North Carolina hopefuls who have ties to Moore County.
Lisa Mace, the 23-year-old Miss Goldsboro, is the daughter of Kenneth and Gayle Mace and grew up in Seven Lakes. And Emmy McLean, 21, daughter of Michael and Anne McLean, is from Whispering Pines and will compete as Miss Piedmont Triad.
"It's kind of funny when it works out like that," says Beth Knox, business manager for the Miss North Carolina pageant. "It seems like every once in a while it will work out that little pockets of the state will produce preliminary queens."
Although those three contestants are from the same region, they will attempt to stand out from one another -- and from the 20 other women -- and emerge as Miss North Carolina on June 21.
When the competitors take the stage in Raleigh, they aim to look polished and poised, but making that happen takes considerable preparation.
"It's a lot of stress," Mace says. "It keeps me on my toes. You do want everything to be perfect and your wardrobe prepared."
Each woman must rehearse for the four categories of competition: talent, physical fitness in swimsuit, interview and evening wear.
For Puleo, that preparation began months ago.
She won a trial gym membership in a raffle and began working out. She carefully selected her wardrobe, everything from a dazzling blue dress with beading to a vivid pink bikini. She started rehearsing her talent, a ballet en pointe routine to a song from "Pirates of the Carribean," and jeweled an artificial sword to use in her performance. And she went to Mystic Tan to achieve a bronzed glow.
But beyond the physical preparation, she also needed mental readiness.
In the pageant world, it's no longer good enough just to walk the walk. Pageant contestants also have to talk the talk -- clearly, and with proper grammar.
But for Puleo, the interview is the best part. She says she enjoys fielding questions about politics or current events, and says it feels almost as if she is running for office.
"I enjoy the interview because I think it's the easiest," Puleo says. "They just want to see how you think on your feet."
Meanwhile, the other competitors haven't been sitting on their haunches, either.
They've also been busy preparing their talents: a tap routine for Mace and Celine Dion's song "Then You Look at Me" for McLean.
Although the pageants require an immense amount of mental and physical preparation, Puleo says she practices moderation when she trains. If the competitor has been preparing all along, the four competition segments shouldn't come as too much of a shock, she says.
"These should not be a problem because you're already at the top of your game," Puleo says.
'Couldn't Be More Ready'
Being at the top of her game is nothing new for Puleo.
The daughter of Drs. Joel and Ellen Puleo of Pinehurst, she graduated at the top of her class from The O'Neal School. She was crowned Miss Moore County the same day she took the SAT. In her senior year, she took five Advanced Placement courses and calculus, which she says made her very efficient -- an asset when it came to pageant preparation.
"I feel like I couldn't be more ready mentally," Puleo says.
On top of schoolwork, Puleo was a member of the O'Neal Volunteers and worked on blood drives, talent shows and other fundraising events. She also was a member of the track team and competed in shot put and discus.
In the fall, Puleo will attend Duke University, where she plans to major in either classics or romance languages and minor in or take classes in dance. Ultimately, she hopes to become a lawyer.
Mace and McLean don't shirk responsibility, either.
Mace, a 2003 graduate of Pinecrest High School, attended East Carolina University and gained her dance performance degree in May 2007. She now lives In Greenville, N.C., and commutes to Goldsboro to teach dance at A Step of Class dance studio. She hopes to be a professional dancer and open her own studio one day.
McLean graduated from Pinecrest High School and went on to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She will earn a double major in English and journalism in December and hopes to attend Duke for a master's degree.
Been There, Done That
In addition to their academic schooling, the women have educated themselves in the ways of pageants. All three have competed in some type of pageant before.
McLean's first pageant participation was in fifth grade, when she won the Miss Noel pageant. She didn't compete again until 2006, her sophomore year in college, and was first runner-up at the Miss Moore County pageant. In 2007, she won the Miss Moore County title and got third runner-up at Miss North Carolina.
"Quite honestly, it was intimidating because I didn't know what I was doing," McLean says. "This time around, I actually have some kind of clue about what's going on. The comfort level will be much higher this year than it was last year."
Mace's first stop on the pageant circuit began with Junior Miss Noel around age 7 or 8.
"The reason that I kind of started doing pageants was not really for the crown or the pageants, but because I was a dancer," Mace says. "They wanted me to have more practice doing a solo routine on stage."
But Mace found herself gaining poise and confidence from the experience, and she continued to compete in pageants about once a year. She won Miss Moore County in 2005 and received a non-finalist talent award at the state competition. She didn't plan on competing again but says she "got the bug to try one more time."
For Puleo, pageants are a family affair. Her mother was second runner-up in the Miss New York pageant in 1974, and her younger sister, Blair, competes in the Miss North Carolina Outstanding Teen pageant. Puleo herself competed in the teen pageant three times.
Puleo's older sister, Ashley, was Miss North Carolina USA 2004 and won second runner-up at the national level.
The transition Puleo observed in her sister was encouragement that she could win, she says.
"It makes it seem like it's not just a fairy tale," Puleo says.
What They Gain
When Miss North Carolina is crowned, she receives numerous prizes, including scholarship money, gift baskets and the opportunity to compete in the Miss America pageant in Las Vegas during the third week of January.
But all three competitors say the pageant gives them more than that.
Puleo says being in pageants gave her skills useful not only for future pageants, but also for life. They boosted her confidence when she went to college interviews, and being on stage helped her to open up.
"The biggest thing I've taken away from pageants is how to be a lady, in every sense of the word," Puleo says.
McLean says that for her, pageants are an opportunity to feed her competitive spirit, meet women with similar passions and make a difference in her community.
"I don't compete so much for the scholarship money as for the experience that you have after a year of service," McLean says. "After I handed over my Miss Moore County crown, I felt like I was a different person. I felt like I'd made a difference in my community. I'd spoken to more than a thousand students, gotten to know Moore County. It reinforces the importance of giving back to the community."
Mace added that the opportunity to dance is one of the best parts of the competition.
"I love being onstage," Mace says. "Any opportunity that I have to be onstage, I always act as if it's my last chance."
And sharing that passion with others, she says, is her true crowning achievement.
"Now my focus is what I can make a difference doing," Mace says. "Dance is my passion. I really feel that that's what God put me on this earth for. My duty in life is to teach as many children as I can."
'Can't Wait to Go Back'
The pageant also gives the women the opportunity to draw attention to their respective platforms.
Puleo's platform, which she calls "TEAM: Together Everyone Achieves More," encourages people to volunteer together. Puleo says her experiences while volunteering alone at the hospital during the past four summers made her realize that more work gets done and more fun is had when volunteers work in groups. Above all, she wanted to choose a platform that would be feasible.
"Some of the other platforms seemed more far-fetched," Puleo says.
McLean also says choosing a platform of importance to young people was key. She chose skin cancer awareness as her theme when she learned that most skin damage is accumulated before age 20. Her platform also has personal significance: Her grandmother was diagnosed with skin cancer.
Mace's platform ties in with her passion for dance. Titled "Take the Lead: Partnering Dance With Education," Mace's platform involves her teaching tap, ballet and jazz to fourth-grade students in a Goldsboro school.
"We were just trying to do an experiment to see how the dance would help them in their schoolwork," she says. "So far, all the ones in my class have done very well on end-of-grade tests. It's really been a wonderful thing."
Despite all the work that goes into the pageant, all three women say the experience is extraordinary -- win or lose.
If Puleo wins, she will be the first Miss Moore County to win the state pageant. But if she doesn't win, she'll probably try again.
"It's so nerve-wracking," Puleo says, "but after it's done, you can't wait to go back."
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