New Miss America brings new focuses, image for organization

Miss Wisconsin Laura Kaeppeler was crowned Miss America 2012 in Las Vegas on Jan. 14, and promises to bring attention to her own interesting platform of aiding children of incarcerated parents, as well as being the ambassador for the organization’s national platform, Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals.

Miss America 2012 Laura Kaeppeler at her post-crowning press conference on Jan. 15. Photos by Steve Smith.

The contestants take the stage during the second night of preliminaries.

“I am so honored, and so, so blessed to be in this position,” Kaeppeler said. “It’s something that every young girl dreams of and it’s something that you never imagine can come true in your life.”

“We are also going to be focusing this year – and Laura is going to be focusing on it as well – on education, education, education,” said Miss America Chairman of the Board of Directors Sam Haskell, III. “What the children of this country need is education. Children have dreams and they have to be educated.”

Kaeppeler said she is also excited about the organization’s new focus.

Miss America 2012 Laura Kaeppeler introduces her father, Jeff Kaeppeler to the press.

“I’m so looking forward, this year, to stressing the importance of education,” Kaeppeler said, in a post-crowning press conference, adding that it ties in with her own platform, Circles of Support – Mentoring Children of Incarcerated Parents.

“Education is the way to their future,” she said, “and they don’t have to follow the same norms as their parents.”

Kaeppeler said there are more than 2 million American children with parents in jail, and it was her own personal experience – her father, Jeff Kaeppeler, spent 18 months in prison for mail fraud around the time of her high school graduation – that has made her stronger and caused her to embrace the issue as her platform.

“My family and I, as a whole, decided to pursue this, and we see the need for mentoring these children,” she said. “They are so much more likely than their peers to commit crimes and then be incarcerated at some point in their own lives.”

Haskell said he could not be more thrilled with Kaeppeler.

“Laura is a beautiful and brilliant young lady,” Haskell said, adding that the field of 53 contestants was one of the most talented ever.

Miss Connecticut Morgan Amarone during the evening gown portion of the preliminaries on Thursday, Jan.12.

More specifically, the organization’s education initiative, called Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) will also include the arts, and will be implemented through state and local levels of the organization to encourage all young people to participate, grow, and learn, Haskell said.

Kaeppeler is also charged with embodying a change to a more modern image for Miss America – something which was talked about among contestants during the weeks (and months) leading up to the pageant.

In August, 2011, the 53 Miss America 2012 contestants met in Orlando, Florida at the Miss America’s Outstanding Teen competition, where they were told that the new queen crowned in January would not necessarily be the prettiest or the most talented, but rather a businesswoman who would help market a 21st century image of Miss America, its organization and its philosophies.

“We’ve actually been talking about this a lot,” said Miss Connecticut Morgan Amarone. “Miss America is really changing itself and going into a new, modern direction. We had said we really don’t know exactly what they are looking for. So there’s really no way to prepare yourself other than to be yourself and do your best. We all feel that this is such a great group of girls that no matter what they are looking for, the person who fits that mold will be able to handle the job and feel comfortable. It really is an incredible group of women.”

“Miss America 2012 should definitely be a woman who is trendy,” said Miss District of Columbia Ashley Boalch. “I think the organization is understanding that there is definitely a change in the times. Young people are starting to become more interested in Miss America, so I think it’s important that she is not only a label, but she is also a young woman like themselves – someone who is hip and in, but is also intelligent at the same time…the girl next door, but amplified a little bit.”

Miss Massachusetts Molly Whalen performs in Wednesday's preliminary competition.

“It’s definitely evolving,” said Miss Massachusetts Molly Whalen. “Just from listening to the judges’ interviews and what they’ve said so far, they definitely want Miss America to evolve into a confident young woman of today.”

Pageant sponsor and wardrobe-provider Express would appear to be an integral part of that shift.

“Express is very hip and very modern,” Amarone said. “I think Miss America is trying to move into a more modern role model. I think it’s a great move and is really going to attract more people to the organization.”

Whalen said some speculation among the contestants about a surprise that would be thrown at them on finals night centered around Express..

“We all have a theory that we think is going to happen,” Whalen said, two days before the finals. “We think Express might choose one of the girls.”

Whalen explained that the sponsor had given each contestant a $250 to choose their arrival outfits, and asked them to follow pointers and act like “the Express girl.”

“We’re thinking that the girl who really took those pointers to heart and really holds that image through the entire pageant may earn a spot in the top 15,” Whalen said.

Instead, a somewhat shocking twist took place when the contestants who were already eliminated were asked to choose the last contestant to move on from the group of 15 (thereby cutting two of their co-contestants) by making a spot decision among the last three, and stand directly behind her during the live broadcast.

Miss District of Columbia Ashley Boalch performs "Crazy Little Thing Called Love," in Thursday's preliminary.

That attention-getting gamble by the organizers would seem unlikely to be used again, as reactions to it were markedly unfavorable. The audience sat stunned at the reality television-inspired twist, and then promptly and roundly booed during the following commercial break when asked what they thought of it by the off-air emcee. The twist even drew criticism from former Miss America titleholders via social media.

Overall, the sisterhood of Miss America 2012 seems to have survived the forced public side-taking, and contestants related their stories of how the “sorority” took shape.

“It’s really cool to get together and talk about the different experiences that we’ve had as titleholders,” Whalen said. “It’s so cool to see that the cultures vary from state to state, even though we’re all in the same country. We all really relate to each other in a way that even our friends don’t understand.”

“There are really no cliques,” said Miss Connecticut Morgan Amarone. “Everyone gets along with everyone. You can sit with someone different at every meal, have something to talk about and find out more about them.”

“We get along so well,” Boalch said. “My roommate is Miss Ohio and I absolutely love her—she’s fabulous. We both watch football, which is great.”

Amarone said she also enjoyed learning how the other state organizations differ from her own.

“I can take what I learned from them and hopefully better our organization,” she said, adding that one new wrinkle she hopes to take home is that some state competitors’ interviews are taped and they are allowed to view them after they earn their state crown.

Miss Maryland Carlie Colella "rocks it" in the swimsuit round.

“Every girl who has experienced that has said that it helped her tremendously,” Amarone said.

As Kaeppeler leaves her 52 sisters and begins her 20,000-miles-per-month journey across the country, she said she will take those pageant experiences with her, while bringing more hope to children who have faced the same issues she has, and perhaps inspiring a future Miss America.

“I’ve been working with this fabulous organization called the U.S. Dream Academy,” Kaeppeler said, “which is an organization that serves children who have the highest risk to become incarcerated…there are ten academies across the country, in ten different states. My goal as Miss America is to have a Dream Academy in every single state. These children are taught to map out a dream and plan for their future and for success. It truly empowers you that anything is possible for your life. That’s the message that I want to share with children who have parents in prison – that no matter their background, no matter where they come from, they could be Miss America. They could be anyone they choose to be.”

For more photos from Miss America pageant week, please visit www.stevephotographysmith.com.

Miss Wisconsin Laura Kaeppeler waves to the audience as she begins her journey as Miss America 2012.

Miss Wisconsin Laura Kaeppeler waves to the audience as she begins her journey as Miss America 2012.

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