By: Oskar Garcia
ABOVE PHOTO: Miss Virginia Caressa Cameron reacts after being crowned Miss America Saturday Jan. 30, 2010 in Las Vegas.
AP Photo/Eric Jamison
LAS VEGAS — A 22-year-old Virginia woman who said she once thought her only talent was singing is the nation’s newest Miss America, emerging from a field of 53 contestants picked for their beauty, compassion and interview savvy.
Caressa Cameron, a broadcast journalism student at Virginia Commonwealth University, now plans a second year away from college as she travels extensively to raise money for charity and carry the 89-year-old pageant’s crown.
“I hope to gain inspiration, I hope to gain momentum so that when this 365 days is over, I can shoot through the moon,” Cameron told The Associated Press.
Cameron, the first black Miss America since Ericka Dunlap in 2005, says she wants to get a master’s degree and eventually become a news anchor.
Cameron, the daughter of a background researcher for the government and a contractor, said she was inspired to compete in pageants at age 14, when Miss Virginia 2003 Nancy Redd visited her school.
“At that time, all I knew that I could do was sing — that’s all I had,” the Fredericksburg, Va., native said.
Cameron said that after that visit, she decided to try out for a school musical, which snowballed into more opportunities in the arts, drama and other areas.
“More doors and more doors continued to open,” she said.
“It’s so important that we reach our young people, because there are so many young people that are at the very same crossroads that I was at.”
“We need those people to let them know that just because your circumstances are a certain way, you don’t have to succumb to them,” she said. “You can do something amazing, like become Miss America.”
The last Miss America from Virginia was Nicole Johnson in 1999.
Cameron won the title and a $50,000 scholarship Saturday night after strutting in a skintight yellow dress, belting Beyonce’s “Listen” from “Dreamgirls” and advising parents to limit video games and television when asked about childhood obesity during an onstage interview.
“We need to get our kids back outside, playing with sticks in the street like I did when I was little,” she said. “Expand your mind, go outside and get to see what this world is like.
Miss California Kristy Cavinder was the first runner-up, winning $25,000.
The young women who came out on stage at the beginning of the pageant and danced to “I Gotta Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas are from all 50 states plus the District of Columbia, Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
After a week of preliminary competition that counted 30 percent toward their final scores, they each introduced themselves to the crowd Saturday at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino.
“From the home of the Governator, I am here to pump you up,” Cavinder said as she was introduced.
The judges, the public and contestants themselves then trimmed the field over the next two hours.
Actor and “Extra” host Mario Lopez hosted the 89-year-old pageant with help from Clinton Kelly of TLC’s “What Not to Wear.” The pageant was broadcast live on TLC.
The panel of judges included radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, actress Vivica Fox, musician Dave Koz, Miss America 2002 Katie Harman, gymnast Shawn Johnson and former “American Idol” finalist Brooke White. Comedian Paul Rodriguez was set to be a judge, but organizers said he pulled out because of a family emergency.
Each judge ranked their five favorites in order, and their ballots were used to pick Cameron as the winner. She was crowned by Miss America 2009 Katie Stam of Seymour, Ind.
Cameron won her state’s title on her fourth try, and said she saw pageantry as a way to raise money and awareness for her platform issue, AIDS awareness.
She said the issue is personal for her because her uncle died of AIDS and her family fostered a young girl who lived with the disease.
She was recognized by Congress in 2007 for her work to bring instant-result HIV testing to her home state.
During the Miss Virginia pageant last year, Cameron was asked her opinion about gay marriage, the same issue Miss California Carrie Prejean was asked about during the Miss USA pageant two months earlier.
Cameron said she believed marriage should be between a man and woman because of her religious beliefs, but she didn’t think there should be laws against gay marriage.
When the judges’ decision in that pageant came, Cameron said she experienced a quiet moment onstage.
“’Thy will be done,’ That’s what I kept saying,” she said. “Thy will be done.”