Erika Harold won the Miss America crown in 2003, becoming one of just a handful of African-American women to win the honor in its eight-decade history. But Harold became embroiled in a minor controversy during her first month as Miss America, when she asserted that pageant officials had tried to stop her from speaking publicly on the topic of sexual abstinence. She did, however, prevail in using her high-profile media exposure to condemn bullying, noting that she was once teased so harshly that she was forced to transfer schools as a teenager in Illinois.
Harold was the first of four children in her family. She was born around 1980 to a white father and a mother who was part African American and part Native American. She excelled in school, and even served as her eighth-grade class president, but when she entered the University Laboratory High School in Urbana, Illinois, Harold and a friend became the target of a group of hostile students. Her friend was white, ruling out racism as the reason behind the bullying, but her friend had made a sexual-assault claim against one of the boys in the group, which may have caused some ill will. They were teased relentlessly at school, and Harold's family home was even vandalized. "When you talk about your experiences of being harassed, people say, 'Well, what did you do?' or 'Why did they choose you?'" Harold explained in an Ebony interview with Nikitta A. Foston. "But that is not relevant. The question is 'Why do people feel it's acceptable to harass other people and treat them as though they are not worthy of value?'"
On one occasion, a teacher did nothing when Harold's harassers sang obscene lyrics about her in class; another time, Washington Times journalist George Archibald quoted her as saying, she overheard a plan "to pool their lunch money together to buy a rifle to kill me. And when I went to tell the principal this, his only remark to me was, 'If you'd only be more submissive like the other girls, this wouldn't happen to you.'" Both Harold and her friend eventually transferred to another high school, and the other young woman filed a lawsuit two years later against school officials, which resulted in a settlement.
Harold thrived at her new school, Urbana High. She sang in the school choir and continued her private voice lessons after school. She went on to the University of Illinois, where she studied political science. She hoped to enter law school, but knew she would be forced to take out student loans if she was accepted into her school of choice, Harvard University Law School, where tuition costs neared $30,000 per year. Knowing that beauty pageants, even at the state level, offer scholarship money, Harold began entering local contests. She lost out on the Miss Illinois crown twice, in 2000 and 2001, but—in the same year that she graduated Phi Beta Kappa from University of Illinois—she made her final run for the state title, and won it in June of 2002.
Harold went on to the Miss America pageant three months later, held annually in Atlantic City, New Jersey, since 1921. Her "platform," or pet cause, was anti-bullying, and she spoke frankly of her own traumatic experience. During the talent portion, she sang an aria from Carmen, the Georges Bizet opera, but did not score very well in this segment. She also failed to take a lead for the swimsuit and evening gown competitions, but impressed the judges during a closed-door interview, in which contestants are grilled on a variety of current-event topics. When she was crowned Miss America that September evening, she won $80,000 in scholarship money as well her crown.
A whirlwind of publicity typically follows the Miss America pageant, and Harold began making appearances on the Late Show with David Letterman, Good Morning America, Live with Regis and Kelly, and The O'Reilly Factor. She used the exposure to discuss her plans for Harvard Law School, as well as her platform, which ran under the title "Empowering Youth Against Violence." Her anti-bullying campaign called for tougher anti-harassment laws to protect students, among other measures. She also discussed sexual abstinence, a cause she had advocated to teenage girls during her bid for the Miss Illinois crown. But when she was scheduled to speak before the National Press Club in October, pageant officials told her to avoid the abstinence discussion. Harold took her story to the media instead, and conservative pundits rushed to her defense. She viewed it as a restriction on expressing her personal values. "If I say 'I don't think we should bully others,' there's not a soul who's going to say, 'I think we should harass people,'" she told John W. Kennedy in Christian Reader. "But if I say, 'I think people should wait until marriage to have sex,' some people want to challenge that."
The issue was somewhat more complex. Illinois pageant officials had made youth violence prevention their official campaign, and the state's Miss Illinois contestants had to sign a contract stating if they won the crown, and thus made it to the national level, they would adopt violence prevention as their platform. Harold had added the sexual-abstinence part. Two days of negotiations with pageant officials followed, and in the end she was granted permission to speak on abstinence from drugs, alcohol, and sex, in addition to the anti-bullying issue. "One of my jobs as Miss America is to be a role model to young people and to provide them with my story as an example of how they can achieve positive things in their lives," she told Pamela McBride in Black Collegian. "My personal commitment to abstinence from drugs, sex and alcohol in my opinion helped me to accomplish many of my goals. If I were prevented from speaking about that I think it would be very disingenuous in terms of serving as a role model."
At a Glance …
Born on February 20, 1980(?), in Illinois; daughter of Robert Harold (a salesperson) and Donna Tanner-Harold (a college counselor). Education: University of Illinois, BA, political science, 2002; Harvard Law School, 2004–. Politics: Republican. Religion: Christian.
College student. Teen Victims Project of the National Center for Victims of Crime, national spokes-person; Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, national spokes-person; delegate to 2004 Republican National Convention.
National Board of Directors for the Center of Youth as Resources; Empower Program, advisory council; Peace Games, national advisory board.
Won Miss Illinois title, June 2002; won Miss America 2003 crown, September 2002.
Office—c/o The Miss America Organization, Two Miss America Way, Suite 1000, Atlantic City, NJ 08401.
Harold crowned her successor, Ericka Dunlap, in September of 2003. Interestingly, Dunlap was also an African American woman. Following her year wearing the Miss America crown, Harold spent another year on a round of lectures and other public-speaking events, lending her celebrity to such organizations as the Teen Victims Project of the National Center for Victims of Crime and the Fight Crime: Invest in Kids program. She entered Harvard Law School in the fall of 2004, and with a plan to concentrate on public-interest law. Her future goals include a run for political office someday. Though she is of mixed heritage, she is also the fifth African-American winner of the Miss America crown since Vanessa Williams in 1984, in a pageant that did not have its first black contestant until 1970. "I've always felt a strong connection to my Black heritage," she told Foston in the Ebony interview. "I've encountered discrimination, stereotypes and discrimination. I could never identify myself as a White person solely."
Austin American-Statesman (Austin, TX), February 25, 2003, p. E1.
Black Collegian, February 2003, p. 14.
Christian Reader, January-February 2003, p. 12; May-June 2003, p. 20.
Ebony, March 2003, p. 165.
People, October 28, 2002, p. 73.
Washington Times, October 9, 2002, p. A1.
"Erika Harold," Miss America, www.missamerica.org/our-miss-americas/2000/2003.asp (August 29, 2005).
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