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.
By Brion Price
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.
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
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
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.