LONG BEACH — Zina Ponder is a businesswoman who just happens to be a beauty queen.
The 22-year-old Long Beach woman is co-owner, along with her sister, Tilomai, of the Yogi Bite frozen yogurt shop at the Marina Pacifica Mall here.
One day late last year, the two sisters spotted an advertisement plugging an upcoming Miss Long Beach pageant. "You should do it," Zina told her sister. "Nope, you should try," replied Tilomai, 23.
Zina entered and, to her surprise, won. Then on March 30 she bested dozens of other contestants to grab the Miss California crown. Now Ponder is in Lakeland, Fla., preparing for the Miss USA Pageant, a nationally televised event that is the proving ground for the U.S. entrant in the Miss Universe Pageant.
While critics have branded beauty pageants as antiquated institutions that are degrading to women, Ponder sees it differently.
"A lot of women say it's exploitative to have women competing in swimsuits," Ponder said in an interview before heading east for the pageant. "But those same women go down to the beach in bikinis and show a lot more than you'll ever see in a beauty pageant."
To Ponder, her success is just proof that old stereotypes about women have finally crumbled.
"For a long time it seemed women felt that if they were pretty, they couldn't be smart," said Ponder, who is entering her senior year at USC with a 3.95 grade point average. "And they felt that if they were smart, they couldn't dress up and look good. But now we're seeing career women just trying to be themselves--looking good as well as being successful."
Ponder's own life has been a string of successes and accomplishments.
During high school, she excelled in both academics and athletics, participating in track and gymnastics while regularly appearing on the dean's list. At USC, she is a business major participating in the department's entrepreneur program.
Ponder has acted in plays and written prose and poetry. In addition, she has traveled extensively, taking trips to Morocco, Egypt, France and Spain.
Lifts Weights, Dances, Jogs
She likes jazz dancing, lifting weights at a gym and running on the beach. Name just about any water sport and Zina has done it.
"I've always been into health and fitness," Ponder said. "I was probably the only third-grader who knew what monosodium glutamate was."
The idea of starting a frozen yogurt shop sprang from that interest.
As youngsters, Zina and her six siblings consumed vast quantities of yogurt. When Zina and Tilomai decided to use their savings to start a business in August, 1984, a frozen yogurt shop seemed only natural.
"Running a small business has been a great experience," Zina said. "It gives you a look at the whole scope of things. You can learn more in a year of this than in all your years of college."
She says business is thriving these days and the sisters--the youngest store owners in the mall--are scouting for a site to start a second yogurt shop. In addition, they recently opened a gourmet hot dog stand called "Frank's a Million" adjacent to Yogi Bite.
Credits Father for Merchant Zeal
Ponder attributes her merchant zeal to her father, Kent, an erstwhile college linguistics professor who writes books and owns and operates a firm that markets educational materials.
Zina said her mother, Vasa, a native of Hawaii, is "the backbone of the family," supporting her father's professional endeavors and raising seven children: two boys and five girls ages 14 to 26.
All of them will be rooting for Zina as she tries to become the new Miss USA. If she succeeds, Ponder would be batting 1,000 in beauty pageants--the Miss Long Beach and Miss California contests were her first two.
"I never thought I'd even be in a beauty pageant, but here I am," she said. "It's something I'm trying not to take too seriously. You have to look at it as an opportunity to learn and grow."