Cheryl Prewitt went through the windshield of the car she was riding in when it collided with a neighbor's car 12 years ago.
"I had 100 stitches," said Prewitt, now 23 and Miss America, her soft smile just a shadow of the brilliant toothy gleamer she wears most hours of the day. "Emergency room stitches -- they were done in a hurry.
"My entire mouth has been sewn back together, my chin has been sewn back together, my forehead has been sewn back together -- see this line?" Her fingers pass gently over each part of her face that she mentions, and she points to the barely noticeable vertical indentation that runs down the middle of her forehead. There are no other signs of the accident.
Her makeup is heavy with foundation -- almost theatrically thick. Her blush is rougey, her lipstick very red, her brilliant blue eyes overshadowed by long, sticky mascaraed lashes.
But, like a winsome Flannery O'Connor heroine, she survived it all -- survived the stitches, suffered through having one leg crushed in the accident which made it two inches shorter than the other. And through most of her high school years she walked with a limp. That was before she went to a faith seminar years later where she was healed and the leg grew, she says, two inches that very day.
It all seems far away and fluttery now, as she arrived here yesterday for a Memorial Day service and to promote a USO tour. But she talks about the accident because she is now Miss America -- a title she holds until the next pageant in September. And she is also a born-again Christian, like the rest of her family, which includes two brothers and a sister. The Prewitts are from Choctaw County, Miss., where they once ran a country store. Now they mainly sing and tour the country with Cheryl. (Singing is her talent.)
She travels with her Bible -- and her alarm clock, her music, her crown, her gowns, her dresses, her shoes and her purses. Two full suitcases.
And it all makes sense in her strange world where the discipline and religion and the family values and the little-girlish Southern twang run into the nonstop conveyor belt of commercial appearances and singing engagements and nights in Las Vegas where Glen Campbell calls you up from the audience onto the stage to sing a song with him because you're Miss America.
"I take my guidance from the Scripture," she says, settling onto the sofa of a suite in the Washington Hilton Hotel yesterday, "'Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel.' I guess I've gotten some criticism from spiritual leaders all over. You get letters from everyone. But this is the world where people need to hear that God loves you. They hear it in church. They don't expect to hear it where I am.
"I feel that's why I can justify doing what I'm doing. That's one way I justify it . . ."
And as for that seemingly obvious conflict between being a religious person from the rural South and the object of all that visual, cheesecake inspection, she has an answer.
"People ask me how I could wear a swimsuit [in the pageant] and be a Christian," she said. She leaned forward, her jaw set, her eyes narrowing. "I tell them, 'If you'd been a cripple for six years, you'd love to wear a swimsuit.'" She sat back, her closed-mouth smile triumphant.
When she was in high school, a doctor told her she probably would not be able to bear children because of her leg proglem. Thereafter, she prayed for months to be healed, before she finally went to a faith seminar, as she called it, run by a man named Kenneth Hagan, from Tulsa, she said.
"All day long my leg had felt numb and tingly," she said. "I think whatever happened to my leg happened during the whole day."
The seminar "wasn't emotional with screaming and crying and all this," she said. "It was very relaxing. I believed God enough to know he'd do it. It was very calm and beautiful. I was feeling very loved."
She was standing in front of a stage where the minister prayed over her. She later sat down on the floor and saw that her shorter left leg was then the same length as the other. She figures the whole thing took five or 10 seconds.
"Since the healing I've been an outspoken Christian," she said. "I find people relate to this well. Our whole society is set around negativism. This is a positive note. Someone can have something good happen to them."
She stressed several times that what she talks about is the power of positive thinking. "This is a motivational success story," she said of her healing.
The reaction to her story -- her leg being healed and growing two inches so that she doesn't limp anymore -- is "better than you would think," she said.
"I don't care if they don't believe it. If they're ready to accept it and it helps their life, good. If it doesn't, that's okay. I'm not here to change people's minds. I'm here to show them what works for me. Just like Jesus. He didn't push people. I don't have to be pushy either," she said.
Prewitt talks a lot about religion at her public appearances, many of which are in churches. She will continue to be "booked," after her Miss America reign is over, to sing, to talk about Christ. She is booked into August 1981, and she has some dates into 1982. Her mother handles her post-Miss America bookings. On some of those dates, her brothers and sisters sing with her. She says she and her siblings have traveled around singing for the past 18 years.
"Cheryl uses every opportunity to witness," said her 28-year-old sister Paulette who was traveling with her on this trip. She is asked to explain what that means. She "tells the people about the Lord," Paulette said.
When Cheryl Prewitt lived at home she went to the Salem Indenpendent Church in Choctaw County. "Obviously I don't go now because I'm traveling," she said. "And even if I were there, I don't know if I'd go." She is asked why, and she answers with a non-answer. "Well, I don't know," she said, "because I'm not there."
After lunch with the representatives of all the armed services at the Fort Myer mess hall yesterday she went outside for an hour's worth of photographs. She mugged, she linked arms with the cleancut, slightly awed men, she giggled and wrinkled her nose, never forgot a name, and sometimes gave them little kisses. "Oh, I got lipstick on your cheek!" she exclaimed to one, wiping it off with her hand.
Earlier that morning, Prewitt had sung the National Anthem at a memorial service at Arlington Cemetery. Later she was scheduled to sing at a local veterans' hospital. In between there were constant photographs as she promoted USO shows. She herself will be performing in August in a show making a tour of the Pacific, according to Russell Bice, director of USO shows.
She can remember most of what she's done for the three days just past. Anything before that span becomes a blur. Future events are in the hands of traveling companions -- there are two -- and other officials.
"I don't try to put it in perspective," she said, smiling. "I just do one thing at a time. They tell me what to do and I do it," She laughed a little.
She loves being Miss America, she said. She loves seeing the average person, seeing how they react.
And always there was the smile.
"I grew up smiling," she said. "Once a photographer was taking pictures and said 'Okay, we want some shots of you not smiling,' and I said okay. Then he said, 'you're still smiling,' and I said, 'No, I'm not!' But I was still smiling." She laughed. "With a mouth like this, you have to smile."
Her dress, somewhat bare but modest on top, was made of navy chiffon-like material with a short-sleeved jacket of the same material worn over it. The outfit looked vaguely inappropriate for the bright noon sun of Memorial Day. It looked more like cocktail-party fare. With it she wore her rhinestone crown, which looked ridiculous and out of place as she sat eating lunch. But when she smiled for the pictures and you stood back, it all seemed to fit into place.
She is not classically pretty, something she is the first to admit. "I know I'm not that pretty and I don't pretend to be. Pretty is as pretty does," she said. "I went into these pageants with the attitude that I would go and work as hard as I could."
"I stopped comparing myself to other people long ago," she said. "When I went into my first pageant, I thought, 'I'll never make it because my teeth are crooked, my nose is too long, me legs are ugly, my rear end's too big.' But you just stop looking at yourself that way."
From her first pageant entry, she worked hard. The goal that propelled her was the scholarship money, she said. "Also, I would be on the stage singing; it was a way to promote me -- my music," she added. "And I thought I wouldn't have to work so hard in college."
She always worked. She put herself through Mississippi State University where she majored in piano and voice. When she was 15 she taught piano and voice in the evenings, sometimes teaching 50 students in one week. When she was little she worked at her parents' store sacking groceries and pumping gas.
"And people always seemed to want gas when it rained," she said, laughing.
When she was 18, she entered the Miss Choctaw County pageant. She lost.
The next year, as a freshman, she entered the Miss Mississippi State University pageant and came in second runner-up. In her sophomore year, she entered the university pageant again and came in third runner-up. In her junior year she entered -- and won.
"She felt she should try one more time," said her sister Paulette, a pharmacist in Choctaw County.
She entered the Miss Mississippi contest the next year and was first runner-up. She entered again, and she won. Then she went to the Miss America pageant and she won again.
Each day, with Paulette, she ran at 6 in the morning, for two or three miles, then she did leg lifts and sit-ups. In the evening she would run more. mShe exercised religiously.
"I mean, every place there was a piece of fat," she said, "I was getting it off. I was down to measuring a quarter of an inch. I wanted to look the best I could." She won the swimsuit competiiton in Atlantic City.
Then there were the mock interviews she and her sister set up with friends at home. "That went on for several years," Paulette said. "She was getting her vocabularly down, her grammar down, trying to get rid of her Southern accent -- well, it was really more a country accent. If you have too much of an accent it counts against you."
The first time she was in the Miss Mississippi pageant, she and her sister went to a nice shop in search of the perfect dress. "It was a beautiful dress, and we thought no one else would have it on," said Paulette. "She got up on stage and the girl next to her had the same dress on in another color."
After that Paulette and Cheryl designed her dresses for pageants.
It was Paulette who was driving the car during the accident in which Cheryl and her two brothers were hurt. "She's overcome a lot of emotional trauma," reflected Cheryl. "A lot of it was worse than mine."
Paulette is prettier than her sister Cheryl. She is asked why she never tried out for these pageants. She explains they weren't around when she was of pageant age.
"I could have done it," Paulette said, her eyes a bit defiant. "I didn't want to."
Home is not the same now. When Cheryl Prewitt went home at Christmas, "a perfect stream of strangers came through," she said. "Not family and friends. People I didn't know. It wasn't like I wanted it to be."
They just came in and said nothing. "They just looked at me," she said, her smile almost incredulous. "I've tried a very hard to make people realize I'm a person. I'm the same girl I was a year ago."
But in a way she's not. She'll always be traveling, for one thing. For another, she's not even sure if she'll go back home to live. "I probably could. I don't know if I will . . . I just take it as it comes."
Cheryl Prewitt thinks she might make $50,000 to $70,000 this year from her appearances. In addition, there is the $20,000 scholarship. "I'll get it in cash," she said. In the coming years she hopes she can make $50,000 a year. "I'll be happy with that."
She talks of wanting to get married, wanting to have a family, wanting that support and security. "I just have a little too much love to give to not have a channel."
But ambition is a sweet taste. And, as Paulette said, a career has always been an important goal for both of them. "I don't know if I'd give up a career for a family," said Cheryl Prewitt bluntly. She backs away from the idea of making a life in a place like Los Angeles or Las Vegas. "There are some pressures to center in that kind of life," said Cheryl. "It's a temptation to do it. A part of me would feel fulfilled. For my music I would like it. But it's not what I want to do, what I should do."
Still, the desire for a career lifts her far from Choctaw. "I need to live in a place convenient to an airport," said Cheryl. "I want to always have bookings. I wouldn't mind doing it a little less than I do now. But I like speaking to people. I like the stage."
She talks around the question of boyfriend, never saying she does not have one, but never saying she does. Instead she talks of her total commitment of time to the pageant. "This year is for the Miss America pageant," she said. "I think this year it's important that people see I belong to no one. I belong to everyone."