When Samantha Chagollan was 8 months old, she garnered first place in a Long Beach baby beauty contest. As her father, Manny, sat in the audience, wincing at the screams of encouragement from hundreds of parents while their infants were paraded across the stage, he turned to his wife, Nancee, and firmly announced: "This is Samantha's first--and last--beauty contest."
Manny and Nancee Chagollan of Huntington Beach didn't realize it then, but their only child would never be far out of the limelight.
Samantha, who at age 4 announced to her parents that she was going to become an actress, has appeared as an extra on the television shows "CHiPS," "T.J. Hooker," "Trapper John M.D.," "Hill Street Blues," "Dynasty" and "Crazy Like a Fox."
She also has had minor parts in the movies "Annie," "Young Doctors in Love" and "Gotcha."
Now 12, Samantha has surprised her parents once again by winning the $5,000 first prize in a nationwide essay contest that drew more than 15,000 entrants.
The money is in addition to the $1,000 that she won last January in the preliminary round of judging, when she was named first-prize winner in the grade-six-and-under category. Equally amazed at this turn of events is the sponsor of the contest, the Stuart Hall Co., whose spokesman noted that the stationery, school and office supply company had expected someone much older than Samantha to win the $5,000 grand prize in its first Scholastic Awards Competition.
"We anticipated that the $5,000 scholarship was going to be won by someone who'd be entering college this fall," acknowledged Stuart Hall contest coordinator Jim Schmidt II during a telephone interview from the company's Kansas City, Mo., headquarters.
Samantha's entering the contest was serendipitous, she said. As part of a creative writing and computer word-processing course she took last summer, Samantha said, she and her classmates were required to write an essay using a computer word processor.
Samantha's instructors at Coastline Community College chose to use Stuart Hall's contest rules as a format for their assignment: In 100 words or less, write on the topic: "What's the Most Important Thing the Olympic Athletes Can Bring Home From the (1984) Olympics?"
Samantha's work so impressed writing instructor Bob Stolte, an Edison High School teacher, and word-processor instructor Michael McGuire, from Woodbridge High, that they suggested she formally enter her essay, exactly as written, in Stuart Hall's national contest in July, 1984.
Samantha sent her essay in, and she and her parents soon forgot about it. In January, Samantha's father, who is a personnel manager at a Los Angeles manufacturer of mini-blinds, received a long distance phone call from Stuart Hall's Schmidt informing him that Samantha had won $1,000 for placing first in the sixth-grade-and-under division.
Then late last month, Samantha and her parents were told that her essay had been named the $5,000 grand-prize winner in all grade divisions.
"I almost had a heart attack," Samantha said.
Although overjoyed at winning $6,000, Samantha appears refreshingly unaffected by this latest laurel.
When Samantha was 2, she picked up a brush and has been painting ever since. Though her mother is a professional artist who teaches classes at the Artist's Center in Fountain Valley, Samantha said her mother did not push her in that direction. "It's just that my mom did a lot of painting at home, and I got interested in what she was doing."
Last year, her painting "Exotic Paradise" was judged Best of Show at the Huntington Beach Art League Fair. This spring she won first place at the Huntington Beach Youth Art Festival in the fourth- through sixth-grade category. And in 1983 and 1984, visitors to the Orange County Fair voted her paintings their favorites, resulting in first-place awards in her age category.
Samantha's parents have known for quite a while that their child possesses exceptional abilities.
Shortly after Samantha entered kindergarten, Nancee was summoned to the office of the principal. She said the principal told her: "We have a problem. We've done some special testing of Samantha and found out she's capable of doing sixth-grade work. We could skip her a couple of grades to, say, the third. But third grade really wouldn't be any more challenging for her, considering her abilities."
The Chagollans decided to keep Samantha with her age group, because "we felt that school should provide her with social, as well as educational, opportunities; she obviously would have more social interests--and be able to relate better--with children her own age," Nancy said.
Samantha also participates in special programs offered by the Huntington Beach City School District, has had private tutoring and enrichment classes under the auspices of the Pegasus program for gifted children at Coastline.