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Beauty And The Beaker
For Jamie Ginn, It Was Science That Dangled The Brass Ring. So Why Did She Try for a Tiara?

By Tamara Jones
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 25, 2007

Jamie Ginn's colleagues were perplexed. Engineering, after all, relies on scientific data and computer models. Problems have solutions, and logic ultimately prevails. But what they were looking at now was a bafflement. They showed Ginn the score sheet they had downloaded, and triumphantly pointed out the statistical flaw.

Look, there's no six sigma in this judging process!

Ginn glanced at the form and saw they were right. There was no hard data, no obvious equation, to clarify the conclusion reached.

But that didn't make losing Miss America any easier.

* * *

The real riddle, though, was why a 25-year-old chemical engineer would put a cutting-edge career in biofuels on hold in hopes of claiming a silver-plated tiara adorned with 720 Austrian crystals.

Why, Ginn remembers her dumbfounded colleagues at DuPont asking when she announced her intentions last summer.

It's a question she still ponders, between chicken festivals and ribbon-cuttings, school visits and legislative photo ops, as she wraps up her reign as Miss Delaware and adjusts to the reality of being Never Miss America.

But even in a scientific community where Nobel Prizes are more likely to be the preferred fantasy, being declared the fairest of them all nonetheless holds an irresistible allure. Last week, Ginn was invited to attend the chemical-solution unit's safety meeting. And could she please wear her sash and crown? She happily obliged.

Now that the corporate world knows her sparkly little secret, Ginn has detected a definite "acceleration" in her career, even though she has only returned to work part time until the new Miss Delaware is crowned in June. Now the experimental-greenhouse manager not only knows her name but wants an autographed headshot, as well.

There are times when she tells herself she's better off, that she doesn't need the validation of her beauty to exploit the possibilities of her intelligence. But, she admits: "I wanted it. I really, really wanted it."

Atlantic City Lights

Maybe it was a matter of proximity. Ginn grew up on the Jersey Shore and could see the lights of Atlantic City twinkling across the water. The town created Miss America in the Roaring Twenties as a gimmick to prolong the summer tourist season.

Ginn never considered herself a "crown chaser," although she has dabbled in pageants since childhood. A dancer since age 2, Ginn admits she has "always loved being on a stage."

Each year, the Ginns drove from their home in Marmora to Atlantic City to watch the parade after a new Miss America was crowned. For Jamie, the desire to become Miss America was more a gradual reckoning than sudden epiphany.

At 18, she had her first shot. Finishing in the top 10 in the Miss New Jersey pageant, she tried again three years later and made second runner-up. Her mother, LeeAnn, shuttled between the pageant and the hospital, where Jamie's 9-year-old sister, Summer, was recovering from surgery to remove 18 inches of her intestine. LeeAnn remembers watching that pageant and realizing that Jamie would lose.

"I was devastated," LeeAnn recalls. She headed to church and prayed: Please help me understand what we did wrong. Afterward, she told Jamie that she felt as if God had spoken to her. "You have to make Crohn's your platform," her mother urged.

Summer had received a diagnosis of Crohn's disease, an incurable inflammatory bowel disorder, at 6. She had gone off to second grade pumped full of steroids that ballooned her tiny body and tinged her skin blue. A feeding tube was taped to her face.

By then, pageant scholarships were paying Jamie's way through nearby Rowan University. DuPont recruited her before graduation, after she delivered a paper on diesel emissions to a professional conference in California. She credits pageants for turning her into an extrovert and developing her public speaking skills.

Before entering the workforce, though, Ginn decided to take another stab at Miss New Jersey. She won the talent and swimsuit competitions, but finished as first runner-up.

"I thought it was because my platform was 'offensive,' and that hurt me at my core," she says. She was done with pageants.

Making the Grade

Flat-out competition to be the most beautiful girl might seem petty and superficial, but the undeclared contests to be the smartest are far more ruthless, Ginn knew.

She had always been a good student, a self-described math geek whose father made no secret of his desire to someday have a doctor in the family. Dance was Jamie's true passion. Her parents had decorated her room like a studio, with a wall of mirrors, Hollywood lights and a ballet barre to practice on.

In the eighth grade, she got the highest GPA in the class. The girl who came in second belonged to the "prettiest, most popular crowd." She played field hockey, and the entire team decided that Jamie Ginn was now their collective enemy.

Whenever she walked into a classroom, Ginn remembers, she would see the letters "JSMD" scrawled on the blackboard. The same thing appeared on spirit buttons the field hockey team began sporting. Finally, a friend explained the shorthand: Jamie Slut Must Die.

The harassment continued and even worsened in high school, where Ginn built her social life around the math team. The alpha girls kept punishing her, staging weekend scavenger hunts that listed the Ginns' mailbox or Jamie's car antenna or radio among the items to be collected. She remembers consciously deciding not to apply herself to her fullest.

She concentrated on her dancing and was encouraged by the older girls at a local dance studio who had won scholarship money in the Miss Ocean City pageant. She won the title -- and $5,000 for college -- at 16. But in hindsight, she regrets not allowing herself the same ambition academically. She finished 11th in her graduating class, she remembers, and her tormentor ranked seventh.

"You win," she says now, with a bitter smile.

Beauty and Biofuel

At a company that is home to more than 2,000 scientists, Ginn holds a spot on one of DuPont's key research projects: turning corn into fuel. Her assignment is to build a computer model of a biorefinery and to perform a life-cycle assessment measuring the economic and environmental impacts of biofuels from harvest to hot rod.

But she was restless. She daydreamed about going to medical school. Or developing her own cosmetics line. She did volunteer work to raise money for Crohn's research.

Ginn rented an apartment in Philadelphia and commuted more than an hour to work in Wilmington, Del., so she could study dance at a well-regarded studio.

She adopted a stray dog, choosing an ill-tempered rat terrier with a penchant for biting over the one whose neck had been broken, leaving its head permanently cocked to the side. Mean trumped ugly.

As a chemical engineer, she was invited to speak at an automotive conference. "I came in wearing a gray suit, maybe pink shoes. They laughed. And then I started talking, and they stopped." On the convention floor, she spotted spokesmodels in miniskirts and boots riding Segways, "and I thought: I'd rather be on this side of the fence."

Back home, her pageant supporters reminded her that 24 was the age limit to compete for Miss America.

"I always forget how much I hate it until I'm there," Ginn says of beauty contests. She says she despises the very premise of one person being worthy and everyone else, not. Yet pageants offered rewards that still tantalized her -- enough scholarship money to reconsider med school, a showcase for her talent, celebrity status to advocate for causes she believes in.

She lacked the residency to qualify for state pageants in New Jersey or Pennsylvania, but her job at DuPont made her eligible for Delaware. She believes "that it was in my destiny to be Miss Delaware. I believe in God's plan."

She took vacation time to compete for the state title, confessing her plans to co-workers in advance, first closing their office doors and then bursting into nervous tears. "I was worried about what they would think about me," she admits. Once crowned, she took a year's leave from DuPont. Miss Delaware, although unpaid, was not allowed to hold another job. Jamie's parents took over her rent; an aunt made payments on her new Prius. Her family paid for the gowns and designer suits not covered by the state organization's meager wardrobe allowance. Becoming a role model for young women meant sacrificing her independence.

Now she keeps spare evening gowns and hot rollers in her car, along with a boxful of costume jewelry, a jumble of makeup, a laundry basket full of shoes, a few bananas and some Chex Mix, dance costumes and, of course, her crown. On the ferry she often takes from Cape May, N.J., back to Delaware, she has developed a certain reputation as the woman who drives on in her pajamas at 6 a.m., monopolizes the restroom, then emerges in a cocktail dress and full makeup.

The marketing of Jamie Ginn excited and worried state pageant advisers. Delaware stood a chance of producing the first Miss America from the corporate world, proof in Italian heels that beauty and the geek could be one and the same. Not so glamorous was her platform: bowel disorders. When she refused to switch, her interview coach urged her not to use the word "diarrhea." Jamie's family had already benefited from her status as a celebrity spokeswoman for the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America, her mother readily acknowledges. A top doctor who wasn't taking any new patients agreed to see Summer after a foundation board member intervened on her behalf, and the Ginns feel confident now that they're in the loop about new research and drug trials. In turn, Jamie figures she has helped raise about $20,000 for the cause.

A week before the Miss America pageant, her state board offered Jamie a free consultation with a California plastic surgeon who had developed a mathematical model for the ideal face.

Stephen Marquardt photographed Ginn without makeup, then placed his template over her image. Her nose was a bit short, her brows too arched, her lips too thin. Her hazel eyes were just right. They plucked her brows to lower them, and Marquardt showed her how to use makeup to correct the flaws and bring her image closer to the ideal.

Pretty was an equation after all.

Pageant Fever

The pageant proved more nightmare than dream-come-true for Ginn. With its network ratings plunging, the contest had abandoned Atlantic City for the glitz of Las Vegas and a spot on Country Music Television. Some 70 members of the Ginn clan booked trips to Sin City. Jamie came down with bronchitis and flew west with a raging fever.

Other girls steered a wide berth. "Sorry, I'm a vocalist," one said as she picked up her tray and moved to another dinner table. "Go away!" she heard Miss Arkansas pleading.

During her interview with the judges, Ginn was asked which posed the greater threat to the nation's future: global warming or terrorism? "They're interrelated," she remembers answering, launching into an explanation of the carbon cycle and wondering whether she could possibly come across any wonkier. Maybe if they made swimsuits with pocket protectors.

When the time came for her talent competition -- one-fourth of the score for Miss America -- Ginn was still sick. Her routine was fast-paced, full of the high leaps and tight turns she had spent her lifetime perfecting. She had danced on asphalt, in classrooms, on carpet, danced with no music, in business suits. Now, reeling in her black spangled costume, she danced to become Miss America, and the ground beneath her felt as if it were slipping crazily away. All she could do was smile and try to maintain her balance.

Reigning Days

The last chance was gone in five minutes. Miss Delaware didn't make it to the semifinals, and Jamie Ginn went home.

The new Miss America is a 20-year-old blond coed from Oklahoma who aspires to a career in musical theater.

Ginn splits her week now between her remaining beauty-queen duties and the job where success, she believes, could someday make a genuine contribution to world peace. Once she lost, Miss Delaware was allowed to return to the workforce. "I will go further in my career, whatever that may be," Ginn asserts, "because I have thrown myself into something 'outside the box.' "

On Capitol Hill, the lovely Miss Delaware is welcomed warmly when she appears in senators' offices to lobby on behalf of Crohn's. She talks about requiring private businesses to make their bathrooms available for people with medical emergencies, and about increasing funds for research. Her sister is enduring another flare-up now, and at 12 is still so small that chaperones mistook her for a younger child and tried to bar her from her seventh-grade dance.

One recent weekend, Ginn watched her littlest sister, 10-year-old Briar Rose, compete in the Future Little Miss Cape May County pageant, a title Jamie herself once held. Briar Rose is a brilliant student, Jamie boasts, but she's shy, so entering this pageant was a big step, even though she didn't win. Her voice was clear and sweet as she sang "I Enjoy Being a Girl," and her mother later told Jamie how she had discovered Briar Rose in Jamie's old room, trying on one of her big sister's crowns.

Just, she said, to see how it looked.

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