The legacy of a queen

BY JULIA RUDGERS, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – “Dreams are extremely important. You can’t do it unless you imagine it,” said George Lucas, the creator of the Star Wars franchise. In so many ways, his quote embodies the philosophy of Erika Dunlap, Miss America 2004.

She is a persistent, driven and intelligent young woman who also believed in the beauty of her dreams, and through her will power and determination, as well as focus, made those dreams become a reality.

Sun., Dec. 13, the Carter G. Woodson African American Museum and the ladies of Zeta Upsilon Omega Chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. hosted an event entitled “Conversations with the Queen.” This was an opportunity for the sorority’s youth organization to chat with Dunlap about her experiences as Miss America and growing up as a young black woman in pursuit of her dreams.

Dunlap immediately drew the crowd in with her warm demeanor, and held them there with the strength and maturity behind her words. She is now a public speaker and travels around the country in hopes of helping others learn how to achieve their dreams.

“My focus is for you all to decide what you want to accomplish and then decide the steps you will take to accomplish your goal,” said the Orlando native.”

Dunlap had always wanted to be Miss America, but never thought in a million years that it could happen; it is a 14,000 in one chance to win the competition. Still, despite the seemingly insurmountable odds, Dunlap began to compete in pageants at a young age, developing and honing her strengths and correcting her weaknesses as best she could. She focused in on her education so that she could continue to compete in the pageants, an arrangement she made with her mother.

 “I wanted to be a great entertainer,” Dunlap admitted. “I wanted to be the smartest girl in the interviews, even if I wasn’t the prettiest. She explained that her mother was not able to afford coaching like many of the other contestants so she would replay tapes of her pageants to find out her strengths and weaknesses.

Then, Dunlap said, she discovered boys. At the age of 12, she wrote a letter to her mother as a petition to begin going on group dates when she turned 15. Her mother was amused but told her it was not an option.

Dunlap is extremely grateful for this lesson from her mother. “Your focus has to be on you and what you’re accomplishing. The boys will come, and trust me they will be there forever. Your focus has to be on what you want,” she cautioned. You can’t allow your friends, boys or peers to derail what your focus is. What is important is you becoming successful and you deciding what to accomplish.”

Dunlap continued competing in pageants, and at the age of 19 won Miss Orlando. Her motivation didn’t only extend to the pageants, however. Before graduating from high school, Dunlap applied for every scholarship she could get her hands on and accumulated over $68,000 to fund her college education.

 “You have to start living your life as though you’re already doing what it is that you want to be doing,” Dunlap averred, even though there may be obstacles in your way. A particular struggle for her was mathematics when she was in school.

 While in college, she changed her diet and learned about nutrition. She started listening to talk radio to become more knowledgeable on perspectives vastly different from her own. She decided that this was the best way to prepare for trick questions, critiques and criticism during the interview portion of the pageants.

Her road to success was not always so smooth, though. Once onstage at the Mahaffey Theater, she had technical difficulties during a performance with her microphone. It took four tries before Dunlap was able to sing her song, but she did not allow herself to be discouraged or give up, and despite the discrimination within the system, she prevailed. Dunlap believed that this was simply another test that she would pass, and she did.

Later in the process, she met and interviewed with one of her idols whose poster hung on her wall as a child, former Miss America of 1990 Debbye Turner, who was the third African American to hold the title. Turner, who was a judge, vetted and qualified Dunlap for the rest of the competition, and immediately after she was crowned asked her, “Where did you get your shoes? I absolutely love them!” A moment she said she would never forget.

So what is Dunlap’s advice for dealing with negativity, you may ask?

After receiving discriminatory anonymous letters during her reign, Dunlap said, “There will always be haters that come in every color, shape, size and age. Wisdom is not commensurate with maturity. We all have our gifts and just because you’re young does not mean that your wisdom is not keen and that you have to listen to the negativity that comes from people who didn’t accomplish their dreams and don’t know how.”

 She left her captivated audience with the message that there is always a choice, hard work and perseverance is invaluable, stay focused and above all to like yourself.

When asked by a student to define self-beauty, she remarked: “The definition of self-beauty is knowing for yourself, without anyone else having to tell you you’re beautiful, that you like yourself a lot.”

If you missed seeing Miss America, you can come out to view the museum’s latest exhibit entitled, “Her Majesty: The Reign of Erika Dunlap,” which charts her journey to the throne. The exhibit will be on display at the Carter G. Woodson African American Museum, 2240 9th Ave. S, St. Petersburg, until Dec. 31.

Although she may not be physically present, Dunlap’s message is as beautiful and as crystal clear as if she were: be true to yourself, be prepared and the rest will follow.

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