In September of 2003 Ericka Dunlap became the sixth African-American woman to be crowned Miss America. An Orlando, Florida, college student who was also the first black Miss Florida in the history of the contest, Dunlap spent her year as Miss America 2004 on an exhaustive schedule of public appearances and speaking engagements before using the pageant's generous scholarship prize to begin law school.
Dunlap was 21 years old when she became Miss America, a goal that she had dreamed of reaching since she was six years old. The daughter of a roofing contractor and a nurse, she grew up in the Orlando area and began entering beauty contests as a first-grader. There were not that many African-American contestants, she recalled in an interview with Leonora Lapeter in the St. Petersburg Times. "Not necessarily that it was whites only, but it was not something that blacks were in and that was difficult," Dunlap explained. She also became active in clogging, a type of folk dancing commonly associated with Appalachian culture and bluegrass fiddle music, but one which also draws upon African dance elements. At times, Dunlap was the only African-American performer in the troupes to which she belonged, one of which even performed at Disney World.
Clogging drew Dunlap to country-and-western music—again, a realm not known for the ethnic diversity of its performers. She and her mother regularly traveled to Nashville to enter the contests that might help her break into the business, and after her sixth-grade year she landed a performing gig at the Opryland USA Theme Park in Nashville. She also continued to enter youth and teen beauty pageants, and was sometimes teased in school for it. Classmates mocked her ambitions, calling out, "Ericka, Miss America," at Boone High School in Orlando. She also dealt with another kind of teasing, as she recalled in an interview with Beth Kormanik in the Florida Times Union. "A lot of people at my school made me feel really ugly because I was dark [skinned]," she remembered. "I didn't feel as beautiful as girls who were light."
Dunlap entered the University of Central Florida in her hometown, and majored in communications. She also began entering the local pageants that would make her eligible for the Miss Florida contest and, after that, the Miss America competition. She won the Miss Orlando 2001 crown, became Miss Heart of Florida for 2002, and in 2003 won Miss City Beautiful. All of them made her eligible for the Miss Florida crown, but she lost out to others in 2001 and 2002. Finally, in June of 2003 she won the title, and her victory was doubly thrilling: not only would she be heading to the Miss America pageant to represent her state, she also became the first African-American Miss Florida in the 68-year history of the contest. "I always wanted to be the first, but I always thought it would be someone before me," she said in the St. Petersburg Times interview with Lapeter. "And I am the first and it's amazing."
As Miss Florida, Dunlap readied for the Atlantic City, New Jersey, national pageant in September, and honed the talking points of her platform, or advocacy issue she wished to promote, which was racial inclusion. "I learned there is prejudice even within the African American community," she explained to Michelle Deppe in Vibrant Life, "based on your skin shade, where you come from, and if you are of Caribbean descent. So my point is, we need to be open to embracing everyone, not just people who are radically different. I firmly believe that every person has something special about him or her, and it's our responsibility to acknowledge each person, and to reach out to people around us."
That diversity was not always a hallmark of the Miss America contest, which dates back to 1921 and is an annual end-of-summer event generally held the first Saturday in September. Once the most famous event in the seaside resort town of Atlantic City and covered by legions of journalists from across the United States, the Miss America pageant was for many years one of the most watched television events of the year, attracting nearly two-thirds of the viewing audience that night. In the 1960s, with the dual advent of the civil rights and women's equality movements, the contest became the target of criticism for its mission of bestowing a crown in a "most beautiful" contest, and for excluding women of color as it did so. Until 1940, its official rules stated that "contestants must be of good health and of the white race," according to a look back at the contest that aired on the public-television documentaries series American Experience. In 1968 a dual "Miss Black America" pageant was staged in Atlantic City that same weekend, while feminist groups protested on the famed Atlantic City boardwalk by crowning a live sheep. That same year Pepsi Cola withdrew its longtime sponsorship of the pageant, noting that the contest did not seem to reflect American society and its contemporary values any longer. In 1970 Cheryl Brown of Iowa became the first black woman to participate in the Miss America pageant. In September of 1983 Vanessa Williams of New York became the first African-American woman to win the Miss America crown.
Dunlap was the sixth black contestant to wear the crown, and won it in part by acing the talent portion of the event with a rendition of the Regina Belle song "If I Could." She also did well in the swimsuit and evening gown competitions, and scored points with judges during her personal interview segment. Her platform's official title was "United We Stand, Divided We Fall Behind: Celebrating Diversity and Inclusion," and it was this message that she would bring to audiences and the press during her round of public engagements as Miss America. She was crowned by another African-American woman with a similar name, Miss America 2003, Erika Harold of Illinois, and lost one of her earrings in the excitement. She found it and did her victory walk, and began the blitz of media events the next morning.
In the modern era of the Miss America contest, organizers responded to criticism that it focused on appearance over achievement by culling funds to turn it into the largest provider of college scholarship money for women in the United States. Dunlap won $50,000, which she planned to use for law school once her year as Miss America ended. On her first day as Miss America she could not resist a retort to the classmates who once taunted her, noting at the press conference that "Ericka" and "Miss America" did seem to go together "really nicely," as quoted by Melissa Harris of the Orlando Sentinel.
At a Glance …
Born c. 1982; daughter of a roofing contractor and a nurse. Education: Earned degree from University of Central Florida. Religion: Baptist.
Career: Student, beauty contestant.
Awards: Named Miss Orlando 2001; named Miss Heart of Florida 2002; named Miss City Beautiful 2003; named Miss Florida, June, 2003; named Miss America 2004, September 2003.
Addresses: Office—c/o The Miss America Organization, Two Miss America Way, Suite 1000, Atlantic City, NJ 08401.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, September 20, 2004, p. JJ1.
Florida Times Union, March 12, 2004, p. B-1.
New York Times, September 28, 2003, p. 6.
Orlando Sentinel, September 21, 2003.
Sarasota Herald Tribune, June 17, 2005, p. BM1.
Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), September 21, 2003, p. 2.
St. Petersburg Times, June 29, 2003, p. 1B; April 17, 2004, p. 4B.
Vibrant Life, July-August 2004, p. 14.
"Miss America," American Experience (PBS), www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/missamerica/peopleevents/e_inclusion.html (September 22, 2005).
"Miss America 2004 Ericka Dunlap," www.missa-merica.org/our-miss-americas/2000/2004.asp (October 26, 2005).
"Miss America 2004 Ericka Dunlap," Miss America Online Magazine, www.missamerica.org/newsletter/fall2003/inthisissue/Ericka.htm (October 26, 2005).
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