Funky is too strong a word for her. You can't be funky and win this pageant. Hey, until this year, you couldn't have short hair and win this pageant. Let's settle for saying that Heather Renee French, 24, looks like the hippest Miss America to come down the runway so far. Yes, she got her first crown at age 6, but she bought it herself at a flea market.
She is what the folks here call a Pageant Girl, having become hooked with her first win at 11. She won her Miss Kentucky title on the fourth try--"I believe it's like a sport, and each year I tried to improve"--and readily admitted this was her last shot. "I was about to age out," she said. She is also arty, however, a painter, singer, musician and fashion illustration instructor who says jazz is her favorite form of music, because it's like abstract art. And somewhere over the years of pageant competition, she dropped the spangles and the big hair and became quite chic. "I had to merge the professional Heather with the pageant Heather," she said.
According to her official pageant bio, French also reads Hermann Hesse, not that she quoted from "Siddhartha" or anything at her first news conference since being crowned Saturday night. Instead, she talked about her cause for this coming year--aiding homeless veterans. She was hazy on the particulars of this. "There are 50,000 homeless veterans," she said today, although her platform essay puts the number at as many as 250,000. If she were to encounter a homeless veteran begging on the street, she said, "I wouldn't give him a handout. I would probably ask them where the nearest shelter was, and try to get them there to get education and training." French plans to work with the Veterans Administration and Tipper Gore on the vets' plight.
Her father, Ron, 52, is a disabled Vietnam veteran whose wrist, elbow and shoulder were broken 31 years ago when his Marine division attacked a machine gun bunker in Quangtri Province. When he came home to marry his fiancee, Heather's mother, Diana, he had a Purple Heart, but it's not easy to feed a family of six with that. Diana French works as a child-care provider and a seamstress. Ron French suffers from debilitating rheumatoid arthritis that doctors told him was provoked by his old joint injuries. In March, he nearly died from strep pneumonia.
One of the first concerns the new Miss America voiced in the moments after her win was that the excitement might be too much for him. "I hope he can withstand it," she said. The Frenches are proud people who today refused to dwell on any deprivation, but the hints were there. "We were very grateful to have been here all week," Diana French said. "Many people had fund-raisers for us."
Her poise, sharp style and easy cheerfulness belie the tough life Miss America has had, said Mickey Hobbs of Lexington, Ky., who cuts French's hair and has helped assemble her wardrobe. "Nobody does anything for her, though. She won't let anybody fuss much. She is very composed," he said. French, who moves like a fashion model and sketches like a designer, planned to wear a gray flannel pantsuit with a knee-length jacket for her opening segment in the pageant. She called Hobbs from Atlantic City and said, "It's looking a little plain. Find some silver fox." He bought some in Lexington, gave it to her when he got here, "and she sat down and stitched it on the collar and cuffs. She's a great seamstress."
When Nicole Johnson was crowned Miss America last year, she said the person she would most like to meet was Elizabeth Dole. Today, French got the same question. She flashed her dimples and said: "Well, I'm going on David Letterman--David Letterman!--and I think he's the best-dressed man on television. So," and she paused for effect, "I can't wait to meet his stylist. I am so involved in creativity behind the scenes, and I want to learn everything I can" from her year of appearances.
There is a boyfriend. "Why is that always the first question anybody asks?" French demanded in mock exasperation. He is Tracey Morris, 38, a nuclear engineer who is now an investor. "My father always said it would take someone who was mature to deal with all that I do," she said. Morris was not there to speak for himself, but, according to the sweetheart he is now supposed to share with America, he asked her last night: "Well, what's going to happen?" "And I said, 'I'll call you the first chance I get,' " French said.
Her reign as Miss America will interrupt her pursuit of a master's degree in design from the University of Cincinnati, where she teaches fashion illustration and is working on a textbook about it for her thesis. But the crown also comes with a $40,000 scholarship, a chance to earn as much as $200,000 in appearance and speaking fees and a full wardrobe.
"It is like a Cinderella story for me," French said. "I don't know whether to laugh or cry. Mostly, I laugh."
Her success at pageantry could not have been predicted, said her mother. "I put her in one of those baby contests, and someone in the family said, 'She's the ugliest baby I ever saw.' Ron said, 'Aw, honey, look at her.' She was chunky, had these squinty eyes, and her hair stuck straight up."
Now, she is a glamour puss without the usual pageant patina of plastic. So bye-bye big hair. French, who may do for this short cut what Farrah Fawcett did for the shag and Jennifer Aniston did for the jaw-length layered bob, just wets her hair, spritzes it with hair spray and runs her fingers through it--hard. Her hairdresser knows for sure, and he told us.