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There's No Place Like Homecoming art

Miss Florida's first African-American winner, Miss America '04 Ericka Dunlap, shares her message of inclusion, enjoys laughs with friends, and even inspires her struggling college football team on to victory.

Photo By Brion PriceEricka Dunlap parade photo
After leading the University of Central Florida Homecoming Parade, Ericka predicted a win for the UCF Knights football team � and they came through for her later in the day.

By Fred Abel

ORLANDO, FL — A little over a month had passed since Ericka Dunlap's September 20th Miss America 2004 victory, and now all eyes were on her. Ericka's Miss America competition roommate, Miss Iowa '03 Nicole White, and the other Top 5 runners-up — Miss Hawaii Kanoelani Gibson, Miss Maryland Marina Harrison, Miss Wisconsin Tina Sauerhammer, and Miss California Nicole Lamarche — flew in to Orlando to share in Ericka's triumphant homecoming. As in past Miss America Homecoming celebrations, Ericka's Orlando return would serve as a rite of passage, a coming-out party of sorts, and a reconnection phase, as the winner flexes the muscles of her newfound fame while drawing renewed strength from an adoring audience of family, friends, civic leaders, pageant partners, neighbors, fans, and local news media. This was Ericka's time to let down her hair, let off some steam, and have fun.

Such an occasion, where a conquering heroine returns victorious, often raises the question: Had her triumph over 50 of Miss America's brightest, most-talented young contestants changed Ericka Dunlap? The answer: definitely not. She was still the Ericka Orlando had come to know during her many years in pageant competition here — beautiful, bright, open, friendly, quick-witted, gracious, and fearless in facing the crush of public adoration. Still, as she stood before them now — first in her signature lemon yellow suit for her parade appearance and, later, in a provocative, multi-colored tropical-theme evening gown at the UCF gala — the people of Orlando could also see that the 2004 Miss America crown and title had made a difference, for it provided irrefutable proof of the rare and special gifts Ericka had used to propel herself to the very top of the pageant world.

From a college senior with a passion for elephants, she now would be speaking out in support of cultural diversity, and using her crown, as she herself has said, "as a propeller" to raise her cause above the confusion of our media-saturated modern society. "It's so important that we recognize the different cultures that are around us," Ericka said at her opening press conference. "It's important that we're knowledgeable about them, and that we're sensitive enough to understand how to accommodate them and break down those cultural barriers. It's just a matter of respect."

Ericka brought chuckles to the crowd of hometown fans by confessing surprise by how joyful she felt during her flight into Orlando. "I'm finally back home!" she declared with dramatic relief. "I think it really hit me when I was on the plane, and the pilot announced we were about seventy miles outside of Orlando... I never thought I'd be so excited to go back to Orlando! But I just started grinning uncontrollably, because it is such a joy to come back home."

Ericka led the UCF Homecoming Parade through downtown Orlando (enticing the largest crowd ever to attend). After she boldly predicted a homecoming victory for her University of Central Florida football team (which, until her arrival that weekend, held a 2-and-5 won-loss record for the season), Ericka sang a glorious rendition of the National Anthem at the start of the game, and then watched from the Citrus Bowl VIP box as the Golden Knights proved worthy of her faith by whipping Central Michigan by a score of 31-13.

The post-game celebration spilled over to the on-campus Miss America Gala reception later that evening, which attracted a Who's Who of Miss America notables, from the executive suite to the grass roots. National Association of Miss America State Pageants (NAMASP) President Bob Arnhym of California flew in for the occasion, as did MAO Director of Field Operations Marie Nicholes, and Gail and Joe Sanders of the Miss South Carolina Pageant.

In a special presentation, Pageantry magazine's Charles and Betty Dunn inducted Ericka into the exclusive club that is the Pageant Hall of Fame. Ericka autographed a blow-up of her Pageantry cover for placement into the hall collection, alongside the many Miss Americas and other pageant winners who have graced Pageantry's pages over the last quarter of a century.

For the complete behind-the-scenes story
— including Ericka's welcome to Orlando, the special guests who visited her, and an inside peek at two gala homecoming parties — as well as details on other exciting competitive events from across America and a wealth of insider tips to improve your chances of victory, be sure to order Pageantry today.

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