ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Erika Harold, who put Harvard University law school on hold so she could compete in the Miss America Pageant as Miss Illinois, won it Saturday.
Harold, 22, an opera singer from Urbana, Ill., wowed judges with "Habanera," an aria from the opera "Carmen," and performed ably on a newly added contemporary culture pop quiz given to the five finalists.
She gasped, covered her mouth and bent her knees in disbelief when her name was announced, then ducked her head to receive the crown from outgoing Miss America Katie Harman.
Miss Alabama Scarlotte Deupree was first runner-up; Miss Oklahoma Casey Preslar was second runner-up; Miss Nevada Teresa Benitez was third runner-up; and Miss Maryland Camille Lewis rounded out the finalists.
Harold, a University of Illinois graduate who wants to practice public policy law and run for national office someday, was supposed to start at Harvard this fall. She delayed her enrollment after winning her state pageant and a shot at Miss America.
If nothing else, the year with the crown will help her pay tuition: She earned a $50,000 scholarship for winning Saturday night, and thousands more in her state crown and Miss America preliminaries.
She plans to fight youth violence during her national speaking tour as Miss America. She said she was bullied as a child and hopes that she can help bullying victims break their silence by showing them it even happened to a Miss America.
"I want kids to be able to break that culture of silence that makes kids feel so ashamed," she said.
But she has other goals, too.
"As Miss America I hope to really define what Miss America is rather than spending my time defending the organization," she said.
The pageant has had a rocky year topped by a controversy over topless photos that threatened to place two North Carolinas in the pageant. The former Miss America CEO also threatened to move the pageant from Atlantic City unless state and city leaders promised new subsidies.
Harold said she is a minority Miss America who fills out 'other' on Census forms. Her mother is part black, part American Indian and part Russian and her father's ethnic background is Greek, German, Welsh and English.
Harold correctly answered 10 of the 16 multiple choice questions on the pop quiz--second best to Deupree among the finalists.
The quiz, which was aimed at showing the contestants' brainpower, added a pinch of "Jeopardy" to the staid old beauty pageant, with host Wayne Brady quizzing the five women on contemporary culture and American history.
Harold's crowning may boost the Miss America Organization's never-ending crusade to be taken seriously as something other than a bathing beauty festival. The organization is the largest provider of scholarships to women in the world, but its swimsuit competition and emphasis on beauty have hampered those efforts.
It also ended what had been a controversial year for the pageant.
Rebekah Revels, 24, who won the Miss North Carolina state pageant, later resigned after an ex-boyfriend told Miss America officials he had topless photos of her.
First runner-up Misty Clymer got the job, but then Revels sued to be reinstated, contending that pageant executives forced her to quit in the first place.
When the women arrived in Atlantic City on Sept. 8 for pageant preparations, there were 52--one for each state and the District of Columbia and two for North Carolina.
A judge sided with the pageant, the photos never surfaced and Clymer got to keep her crown.
In other pageant troubles, its former CEO threatened to move if city or state leaders didn't ante up with new subsidies.