Elyse Umemoto's crowning moment came after the pageant. She was still wearing her beaded, coffee-colored gown and her gold high heels. And she was still...
LAS VEGAS — Elyse Umemoto’s crowning moment came after the pageant.
She was still wearing her beaded, coffee-colored gown and her gold high heels. And she was still carrying the bouquet of red roses she received on the stage of the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino for winning second runner-up to Miss America 2008.
But now her audience was a circle of supporters from Washington state. And the scene was the grand ballroom of the hotel, not the theater.
Walking down the aisle to reunite with her family and friends, she spotted her 86-year-old grandmother, the Yakima woman whom Umemoto calls her “She-ro.” The reigning Miss Washington, who had competed for the Miss America crown less than an hour before, fell to her knees in front of Viola Lumley, seated in a wheelchair, and began to weep.
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“I saw grandma and I can’t explain it. Just the fact that she was there and to see her was the breaking point for me,” Umemoto, 23, said moments later.
She’d been keeping it together for the past six months, through workouts and rehearsals, public appearances and interviews.
Now, she can rest.
While she isn’t coming home with the Miss America title, she is coming home with $20,000 in scholarship money and a sense of accomplishment.
She made it as far as any Miss Washington ever has, tying with Miss Washington 1959, Sharon Joyce Vaughn of Port Orchard, who also was second runner-up.
“I’m thrilled,” said Umemoto, a native of Wapato, Yakima County, about her performance in the pageant. Now, “I get my life back. No more shopping, no more stressing about interviews.” Miss Michigan, 19-year-old Kirsten Haglund, is the new Miss America. She takes home $50,000 and embarks today on a cross-country speaking tour.
Miss Indiana, Nicole Rash, is first runner-up.
Haglund, a cheery, classic blonde, sang “Over the Rainbow” to clinch the title. As her platform issue, she promised to advocate for awareness of eating disorders, an illness from which she has recovered.
Saturday’s crowning at the Planet Hollywood was aired for the first time on TLC. The two-hour show was the latest in a series of attempts to find an audience with a younger demographic after more than a decade of declining ratings and getting dropped from network television a few years ago.
TLC added the pageant to its reality-TV stable, and announced plans to reinvent the look of the show and find an “It girl” ready for modern celebrity.
Umemoto — 5 foot 4, 115 pounds and a size 0 — wore a red and black bikini and the coffee-colored beaded gown during the swimsuit and evening gown portions of the pageant. She sang “Angels” by Robbie Williams during the talent portion of the show.
In keeping with Miss America’s efforts to look more hip and edgy, the contestants struck provocative poses and twirled as the audience howled.
They also wore bluejeans and added a bit of humor to the traditional opening number, the parade of states.
“I’m Elyse Umemoto, Miss Washington. Now, how do you like them apples?” she said with a grin.
She says she’s grateful for her Miss America experience.
“It’s character building and leadership skills and everything good you could never get for free, except from the Miss America system.” After six months of rigorous exercise (six days a week) and a strict low-carb diet that included egg whites for breakfast, she summed up her plans for the next year: “Rest and food and my family.” Umemoto will continue to carry out her duties as Miss Washington until a new one is crowned this summer. She will also return to promoting her platform, “Embracing Diversity, Empowering Women,” and visiting YWCAs in the Pacific Northwest.
Then, she said, she might “take a year off, do some traveling, do my own thing.” She also wants to finish the eight credits she needs to graduate from Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma with a double major in psychology and political science. Then she plans to apply to law school. She’s considering the University of Washington, Seattle University and Gonzaga University.
“I want to stay close to my family,” said Umemoto, a 2001 Wapato High School graduate who now lives in Tacoma.
“She is such a special girl,” said her grandmother, who flew in an airplane for the first time in 17 years to attend Saturday’s pageant. “I’m pleased with everything she’s accomplished.” Her hopes for her granddaughter: “That she can get back to her education and back to her life. And we’d like to see more of her.” Miss America was only Umemoto’s sixth pageant. She competed in — and won — her first one, Miss Pierce County, two years ago.
“When she walked in the door, I knew she was different,” said Kenney Hayes, the executive director of the Miss Pierce County Scholarship Organization.
“She is a go-getter. She doesn’t stop at anything. She pushes forward.” In addition to her $20,000 Miss America scholarship, Umemoto won $10,000 for placing in the top three in the four-part TLC reality series “Miss America: Reality Check.” The final episode aired Friday night.
“She did the state of Washington proud,” said Mercer Island’s Gary Umemoto, Miss Washington’s father.
Greeting and hugging family during the visitation hour after Saturday’s pageant, Umemoto kissed her grandmother’s forehead and rose to her feet as supporters, many of them teary-eyed, applauded.
Then Peggy Miller, executive director of the Miss Washington Scholarship Organization, handed her a package of chocolate-covered doughnuts, which Umemoto immediately opened and popped one in her mouth.
“She did everything we asked of her and more,” Miller said. “She personifies Miss America. She lives her platform. I can’t wait to see where she goes in her life.” Umemoto is ready for her next adventure.
“I’ve had a lot of lucky moments,” she said. “I’m ready to take on what might come next.”
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.