Lisa Marie Daskal had the whole thing planned. The summer. The fall. In her mind she moved the pieces of her life about like toy soldiers. After all those summers of dancing lessons she was finally going to have this one completely to herself. Do nothing. Go to the beach. Lie in the sun. Party. Relax. Then start in as a freshman in college with her sights on law school.
Gang aft a-gley.
Happens all the time.
It started when she turned 18 and it became clear that neither her father nor her mother could provide complete funding for college. "I'd always assumed that my father would take care of college," Lisa said. "My parents are divorced, and on my mother's salary we weren't sure we had the money for college. She said it would be a big help if I could get some scholarship money."
One day, while looking through the paper, Lisa's mother saw a notice about a local pageant; the winner would become Miss Allegany County and go on to the Miss Maryland pageant. The notice advertised scholarship money. Lisa was certainly attractive. She had a pleasant voice. She had all those years of dancing lessons, all those talent contest ribbons . . .
"I think you ought to enter," Lisa's mother said.
Six months later -- after pulling down $600 in scholarship money from the local pageant, another $1,000 from the state pageant, with still another $1,000 waiting for her just for qualifying for the national pageant, more than enough to finance her first years at West Virginia University when you throw in the financial aid she'll get on need -- Lisa Marie Daskal is on her way to Atlantic City, carrying, as the song goes, "the dreams of a million girls who are more than pretty."
miss Allegany County.
Maybe, just maybe, Miss America.
"I may not be the norm," Lisa said between small, dainty bites of a cheeseburger swamped with ketchup.
Probably not. In the sense that she isn't a professional contestant like so many of the Miss America hopefuls. But certainly dead-solid perfect in her reason to enter -- to go for the bucks.
The Miss America Pageant is the largest private dispenser of scholarship aid to women in the nation, giving away more than $2 million per year. And if you win, the scholarship money pales when compared to the personal appearance money. Cheryl Prewitt, the reigning Miss America, is said to be closing in on $100,000 this year. No, the most improbable thing about Lisa is that she won the state title in a maiden race.
"I eas still making plans for the summer even while the states were going on," she said. "All I wanted to do was make the cut, get into the finals on Saturday night with the last seven girls so my family could see me perform. The people on the local level told me that since I was young and inexperienced that I shouldn't be disappointed when I didn't win. So I went to have a good time. I went relaxed. I wasn't in it for blood. So, when I made the cut, I figured I'd done my job.
"On Saturday night the seven of us were up there, and they announced the first and second runners-up, and that left five of us. I thought -- Okay, it's been fun. I was working at keeping my smile and trying to look like a graceful loser, and then they called out my name. I thought I was gonna faint. I just wasn't ready for it. I started to cry, sure, mostly out of shock."
Lisa didn't watch Miss America last year.
She thinks she watched the year before, but she's not sure.
A few months ago she couldn't have told you the names of any of the last 10 Miss Americas. "It never meant that much to me," she said.
Now she's in training to become the next one. Training 45 minutes a day, pumping iron at a Nautilus gym, toning her muscles so her body won't fall out on her under the pressure of the brutal week at Atlantic City. training every day on her talent, a song and dance routine to "If My Friends Could See Me Now." (The state pageant people offered to take her to New York and hire a famous choreographer to fashion a new routine, but Lisa declined.) Training every day by reading Time and Newsweek so she can be up on current events for the interviews with the judges. Training through mock interviews, conducted by state pageant people, so she can sharpen her poise. Example: Q -- How do you feel about abortion? A -- "I'm a Catholic. I'll always be a Catholic. But while I don't believe in abortion for myself, I think other women should have the free choice for themselves."
Training. Nothing is left to chance. Not that it's going to matter a lot to 900 million Chinese, but Lisa is prepared to field questions on everything from the Equal Rights Amendment to what she politely call "cohabitation." Her state pageant has provided her with most of the $5,000 worth of clothing she has gotten in preparation for Atlantic City. Her fashion coordinator, another state pageant official, has given her five typed pages of what to wear virtually every minute there.
"like it might say -- Monday: Red crewneck, yellow blouse, platform heels, red lipstick, blue eyeshadow, black mascara," Lisa said. "and if you think I'm getting coached, believe me, it's nothing compared to other states."
That's because this is Big Business. It may not mean much in the large cities, but in the small towns, "the podunk towns" as Margaret Gorman, the first Miss America (1921), called them, Miss America is the biggest thing since sliced bread. Were Lisa Marie Daskal to become Miss America, her home town of Cumberland, way up in the northwest part of the state, would swell up with a pride that would eclipse the moon.
And that money and prestige explain the training, which Lisa has throughly enjoyed. Some of the physical training has left its mark. "I can't explain it any other way than to say it came from the weight lifting, but my bustline has grown an inch this summer," she said, blushing just slightly. "Two of my gowns are a little snug now, and it would take at least three months for me to get anything off my bustline because that's where I lose it last. That's the way I'm made. We'll just have do some quick altering. It's a little late in the game."
In the last 15 years only two Miss Americas have been 5-foot-5 or under. Only one Miss America was 18, and she was 5-7. It is almost axiomatic that short, young contestants finish up the track.So it is surprising that such a person would win on the state level. Frank Deford wrote in "There She Is," the definitive book about the Pageant, "If Dorothy Parker and Madame Curie came back together, reincarnated in the lean, supple body of Ali MacGraw, with the voice of Joan Baez and the magic feet of Dame Margot Fonteyn, in the form of a girl who had just graduated from high school, the judges at state would advise her to try again after a couple of years maturing at college."
Lisa is 18. "I know that's young."
Lisa is 5-2. "Maybe I can be an inspiration to short girls."
Lisa is, in Lisa's word, "a long shot."
Then again, Lisa was a long shot before.
Before the local pageant her grandfather said to her, "Lisa you're cute, but you're awfully little. We'll still love you even if you don't get Miss Allegany County." Then, before the state pageant her grandfather told her, "Lisa, you're awfully small to win Miss Maryland, but we'll still love you anyway."
Lately Grandfather has kept his own counsel.
Because who knows what the judges will want? It's a short series, and in a short series, the pitching will carry you.
So Lisa Marie Daskal, who never dreamed of being Miss America when she was younger, doesn't dare dream of it now. Although she would love to make the last 10 so she could strut her talen stuff on national television, the prospect of it "scares" her. She's done TV before, "but this is live. Let's say I make it and do well, and then I have to choose between college and a career? You see I have this whole life planned out. College. Law School. I'd like to have to make the choice, but what would I choose?"
But this Miss America thing is too big to hold onto.
"When I sit and think about it," Lisa said, "it scares me to death . It's not what you think it is. I don't have it in perspective. I try to think of it as another runway, another stage. I don't want to grasp all of it. I don't need to buy any more nerves. I'm nervous enough."
Before, she never needed a philosophy.
Now her coaches have given her one.
"One day at a time," Lisa said. "I've got to take it one day at a time."
For the past week she has been staying with Charles and Bev Skinner, heads of the Maryland state pageant, at their home in Forest Hill, about 30 miles north of Baltimore. Tomorrow they will drive to Atlantic City. In a van, the better to accomodate Lisa's wardrobe.
She hasn't been home in a week.
She hasn't seen her boyfriend, Larry Farrell, a sophomore quarterback at Farimont State (W.Va.) College, in a week.
"I guess I won't see her until Sept. 8, after it's over," Farrell said yesterday. "It hasn't been that tough on us; we talk on the phone all the time. I don't know what would happen if she won. I know I wouldn't get to see her much for a year, but what a great honor for her."
They both grew up in Cumberland, and both attended Bishop Walsh High School. They have been going out for almost three years now. He teases her about being Miss Maryland, tells her that all his friends are dying to meet her. The night of Miss America Pageant he will watch along with many of his friends. And he will root.
"I always thought she was beautiful,c he said. "What's funny is that I've always watched the show on TV and looked up to those girls, and now it's hard for me to believe that Lisa's in it. I used to watch and wonder what it would be like to date one of them -- and now I do. That's funny isn't it?"
On Wednesday, Lisa and Bev Skinner were at the Aetna Shirt Co. just outside Baltimore, picking out six blouses that Aetna had agreed to give Miss Maryland. Aetna salesman Bob Kellum was given the honor of escorting Lisa through the racks of blouses because, in the joking words of Morty Offin, one of he owners of the factory, "his wife is pregnant, so he won't try to fool around."
As Lisa walked through, she was separated from the working area by just a wire fence. On one side was this dressed-up, grown-up 18-year-old. On the other side were many young women her age in jeans and T-shirts. What's the difference between Sally Field and Norma Rae anyway, but a little bit of rouge and the right circumstances? Kellum took the visitors through and after 15 minutes all were sweating profusely except Lisa, who looked as if she had just stepped out of an air-conditioned room. She picked out three purples, a red, a dark plaid and a gray. Each would retail for about $30.
"Purple is my favorite color," she said. "I look best in yellow and I look bad, particularly bad in white. I'm good in light green, but not so good in dark green. You learn it from trying on clothes all day for a solid week. I didn't pick any yellows because I've got all the yellows I need -- that's all they let me wear is yellow."
And they all laughed.
She has this talent, Lisa Daskal does, for saying the right thing and saying it in the right way, without making it seem rehearsed. She congratulated Kellum on his approaching fatherhood, and later she said to Offin, "I like your styles a lot, and 'i really like your materials."
Offin was ecstatic. His smile showed at least 45 teeth.
"You know," he said to her, "I'm really beginning to like you. I may even vote for you. Can I do that?"
Lisa Daskal smiled sweetly.
"No, but it's nice of you to offer."
And when they left, Offin showed them to the door and thanked them for coming and taking $180 worth of blouses.
Offin gave her a kiss on the cheek and a Seventh Avenue sendoff.
"Good luck, kid, he said. "Knock 'em dead."