Elyse Umemoto sparkles. Up there, under the lights, in a beaded, coffee-colored gown, she flashes a megawatt smile, giving supporters another...
PUYALLUP — Elyse Umemoto sparkles.
Up there, under the lights, in a beaded, coffee-colored gown, she flashes a megawatt smile, giving supporters another glimpse of what the judges will see.
She looks radiant on the runway. Confident. Poised. Prepared. She’s been readying six months for this send-off.
The reigning Miss Washington left Wednesday for Las Vegas to compete Jan. 26 at the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino for the title of Miss America. If she wins, she could make pageant history.
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Umemoto could be the first Miss Washington to become Miss America. She also could be the first American Indian to wear the crown. And the first Hispanic. As well as the second Asian.
The 23-year-old, whose pageant platform is Embracing Diversity, Empowering Women, jokingly refers to herself as a quad. Her ethnicity is exactly one-quarter American Indian — she’s an enrolled Yakama — as well as German, Hispanic and Japanese.
“One of the messages I want to share as Miss Washington and potentially as Miss America is it doesn’t matter the color of your skin,” says Umemoto, a Wapato, Yakima County, native who now lives in Tacoma. “If it did, I’d be four different colors. I come from four very different backgrounds.”
Her message of acceptance doesn’t stop there. It encompasses socio-economic, gender and other diversity issues as well.
“It doesn’t matter if you have a lot of money, or if you have none at all,” she says, using herself as an example. “I come from humble beginnings. And it certainly doesn’t matter where you grew up. It could be on an Indian reservation, like I did. With the right mind-set and positive role models, you can accomplish anything — even Miss America.”
The 2001 Wapato High School graduate is new to the pageant world. But insiders say she has what it takes.
“She is resilient, thoughtful, caring, talented, outgoing,” says Peggy Miller, executive director of the Miss Washington Scholarship Organization. “She really represents America — the melting pot, if you will — with her four nationalities.”
She’s also “a very strong competitor.”
History’s at stake. So are thousands of scholarship dollars. The Miss America Organization says it is the world’s largest provider of scholarship assistance for young women. The national organization and its state and local affiliates give out more than $45 million a year. With the Miss America crown comes $50,000 — and a yearlong speaking tour.
“Elyse has a really solid chance,” says Fianna Dickson, Miss Washington 2003 and the chairwoman of the “On the Runway to Miss America” fashion show and brunch Sunday. About 130 well-wishers attended the event at Puyallup’s Liberty Theater, where Umemoto modeled her pageant wardrobe in one of her last public appearances before leaving for Las Vegas.
“She’s fresh. She’s funny. Her sense of humor, it just kind of takes you aback.”
In high school, Umemoto was a cheerleader, tennis and soccer player, and member of the Wapato Indian Club.
But participating in a pageant didn’t occur to her until a friend suggested the idea during Umemoto’s senior year at Pacific Lutheran University. Umemoto participated in — and won — her first pageant nearly two years ago. In March 2006, she was crowned Miss Pierce County. That same year, she was first runner-up to Miss Washington.
Last year, she won Miss Seattle and Miss Washington. She has spent the last six months promoting her platform and preparing for Miss America.
“I’m out-of-my-mind excited,” Umemoto says. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You get one shot and then you’re done.”
Friends and family who can’t go to the pageant will be watching from home. Some are hosting viewing parties, and about two dozen others will be traveling to Vegas. Among them are Miss Washington’s mother, Luana Lumley, and three sisters, 17-year-old Lauren Lame Bull, 17; Cheyne Lame Bull, 14; and Shelian Lame Bull, 10; all of Wapato.
Her father, 47-year-old Gary Umemoto, of Mercer Island, will also be there, just as he was Sunday afternoon when Miss Washington forgot to bring her crown, sash and cosmetics to the Liberty Theater.
Her dad stopped by her apartment on the way to the show, delivering the accouterments to his daughter with time to spare.
The idea he could be the father of Miss America is still sinking in.
“I hope I don’t burst into tears the first time I see her on the [Miss America] stage.”