Crowning Moments

The tiara is heavier than it appears. Still, Miss Maryland Teen USA would trade her experiences for only one thing, a national title.

August 14, 2002|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

When she leaves Severn Friday, bound for South Padre Island, Texas, and the 12 days of events leading up to the Miss Teen USA pageant Aug. 28, Michelle Attai will leave knowing that winning is not necessarily the hardest part ahead.

Being Miss Maryland Teen USA 2002 has taught her the real work comes after they set the crown on a girl's head.

"I thought once you won, the pressure was taken off," said 18-year-old Michelle, who took over the title in November from her predecessor, Precious Grady. "But in fact, the pressure is double."

She said this one night this summer, before "an appearance," while standing outside a cavernous ballroom at Michael's on Eighth Avenue in Glen Burnie.

As guest speaker at a four-hour banquet honoring middle school students graduating from an after-school program, Michelle was awaiting her introduction and entrance. She took her place at the top of a staircase adorned with twinkling white lights and plastic ivy. Below her sat dozens of younger girls looking up at her as if she were Snow White or Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, at the least.

It was Michelle's ninth appearance, so she was accustomed to the stares. She knew the younger girls were checking out her size 2 black dress, her 3-inch heels, her makeup and hair. And the looks were OK. Michelle knew they were not so much interested in her as they were in what it took and how it felt to wear the rhinestone-studded tiara.

Michelle knew this because the questions she has been asked most often since winning are versions of this one: "How can I wear it?"

The questions have surfaced at nearly all her appearances: at a luncheon at Ravens Stadium, at an engagement at the zoo; when she was a celebrity judge of non-alcoholic beverages for MADD, when she participated in the Anne Arundel County Health Department's anti-smoking campaign. There have been so many appearances that she didn't apply for her old summer jobs at McDonald's and the Cole Haan shoe store in Arundel Mills.

Michelle has viewed each appearance as an opportunity to hone her speaking skills and prep for the interview, which will account for a third of the judging, alongside the swimsuit and evening gown competitions, when she gets to the national pageant.

And through the appearances, Michelle has learned things she never expected about what it means to be seen as a princess.

"People react to you differently," she said before the banquet. "I'm not a celebrity or anything, but people expect you to be a certain way."

The young girls who see her standing atop the stairs do not know Michelle considered herself a tomboy and was a good basketball rebounder when she signed up for her first pageant and bought her first gown on sale off a rack at a store in the mall in Laurel. They do not know that she was in the top 15 percent of her class when she graduated last spring from Meade High School or that she wants to go to the University of Maryland and become an entertainment lawyer or a politician.

They see her descend the stairs and take the arm of a handsome young high school student who escorts her across the ballroom floor, beneath the chandeliers, and all they can see is her perfect posture and the ladylike way she slips into her chair at the head table. These girls cannot know how disappointed Michelle was the two years in a row she was judged first runner-up in the Miss Maryland Teen pageant, and they cannot know all that she has gone through since she won.

Michelle found a lump in her left breast, and the lump was removed just two days before she was flown to Rhode Island to be fitted for a gown to wear in Texas. The growth was benign, but Michelle was tired and sore, and the gowns scratched her incision as she tried on 15 and thought she would never find the right one. The yellow made her look sick, the red made her skin pink, and it was not until the dressmaker brought out the last, a white gown with a tight waist, beadwork and a small train, that the state director declared they'd found the perfect one.

The girls who watch the pageant on CBS the night of the 28th will see Michelle in her white gown, but they will not necessarily know she worries about talking too fast and being, in her words, "hippy."

Tonight, they see her wave and cannot know the arm in the air has been sculpted by a personal trainer at Bally Total Fitness in Catonsville three days a week during the summer. They don't know she has been so busy she hasn't seen her friends much or that she stopped dating because she worried the time crunch wouldn't be fair to a relationship.

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