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First Person Singular: Miss America Caressa Cameron

Sunday, December 26, 2010; W02

My first pageant ever, I was 7 years old. It ironically was called "Someday a Miss America." It was one of those "bring your kid to the mall, put her in her best Sunday dress" things: no pressure. No toddlers in tiaras, just a bunch of little girls onstage wondering exactly what was going on and happy to be getting some free toys. I won. Then I went back to being a kid, a tomboy with three brothers who also liked to clunk around in her mom's high heels.

When I was 14, my mom saw a flier for Junior Miss Fredericksburg Fair. I really wasn't that convinced until I saw some of the prizes: free funnel cake and free passes. I was there. This time, I also won some scholarship money and got to do more community service. That's when I started to see there was really something to this. People actually want to hear what you have to say about important causes just because you have a shiny hat on your head.

I didn't pick AIDS as my platform; it picked me. I lost my uncle to AIDS when I was 8 years old. When he was very, very sick, I remember watching a video of when he took us to Disney World and wanting him to come watch it with me. He wheeled himself out of bed, came in and started crying. I didn't know until then that he had lost his vision and could only hear all the memories. At that moment I knew that I never wanted any little girl to have her favorite uncle go through anything close to that. My family started the Faces Project, and my mom went to high schools, churches, wherever, to speak about the stigma of the disease and prevention. When I became Miss Virginia, I just kept talking, and more and more people were listening because of that shiny-hat effect.

I'm going back to school next year, as a broadcast journalism major. It would be so nice if this all would have counted as on-the-job credit and they'd just hand me my diploma. But I am looking forward to putting on my sweats, my hoodie and my glasses and getting lost in the crowd of 20,000 students.

-- Interview by Amanda Long

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