Pageantry magazine: How often do you get back home?
Jennifer Berry: Oh, gosh, this is maybe the sixth or seventh time back home since January. Not that often.
PM: Did you originally go into pageants to become Miss America?
JB: I have always watched and loved Miss America. I never really thought about getting into it, though. Growing up, I lived a mile from where the Miss Oklahoma Pageant was held and never even knew it was there! [Laughs] I was approached by someone when I was working in a local dance shop, a local director, who said, “You should really be in our pageant.” I had just turned 17, so my mother and I looked over the pageant information and decided that it would be a lot of fun. I entered my first pageant—didn’t prepare, didn’t do anything—and I ended up finishing 1st Runner-up and had a good time, but there wasn’t any expectations of continuing. But I won my second local pageant and went on to Miss Oklahoma the following June, and that week at Miss Oklahoma state finals was when I just fell in love with the entire program. From that point, I wanted to continue.
PM: What were your goals growing up?
JB: Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to be an elementary school teacher. That was my plan—that, and I wanted to be a ballet dancer. Through high school, I danced every day after school. I was very involved with student council, I was president of FCCLA [Family Career and Community Leaders of America—formerly Future Homemakers of America]. I knew I wanted to go to college, specifically to OU [Oklahoma University]. Once I entered OU, I declared my major as Elementary Education, and I never changed it.
PM: Did you have any pageant-prep courses?
JB: No, the only preparation I had, education-wise, was that I took a Communications class. But other than that, I didn’t. It was experience for me that was the best teaching tool—getting out there and doing it over and over again. After I won Miss Oklahoma, I started my school tour, and I visited 85 schools between September and November of 2005. I was crossing the state giving four 45-minute speeches a day. That was amazing!
PM: What age group would you like to teach?
JB: I love first and third grade; those beginning years are my favorites. I would teach any grade in elementary school, but if I could pick, it would be first, second, or third grade.
PM: Did ballet play a role in your title victory?
JB: Definitely. I started dancing when I was four, and my first recital was when I was six. When you take ballet, the type of dedication and consistent work aligns itself with the dedication and perseverance it takes to compete in the Miss America program—like getting up every day to go to dance class, even when things may not work right or you have a bad day. Also, I was always very comfortable onstage, because I had grown up performing.
PM: At 2006 Miss America finals, the field looked very competitive. Tell us about how you approached that experience.
JB: Coming from Oklahoma—of course I’m a little biased—but we had an incredibly strong state organization. My first year I competed, I was up against 48 strong young women from Oklahoma, and I was the youngest. I competed at Miss Oklahoma for five years before I won. Truly, I definitely needed all five years of maturity and growth to be prepared for the job of Miss Oklahoma. It’s not easy at all, and many times at my school visits I talk about how I had to face failure for four years, but that failure was leading me to something bigger than I ever could have imagined. I had no idea I was being saved to become Miss America 2006. That is something that I didn’t really comprehend until it was all over
PM: Once you won your Oklahoma title and were at national finals, what were you thinking?
JB: That to me was like icing on the cake... It was a wonderful dream come true. I wanted to go in 100 percent prepared and give it my all, knowing that it was my one shot in six years to have that opportunity. But I never thought I would walk away winning. That was bigger than I could ever imagine.
PM: The upside of all those years competing was the scholarships you accumulated, no?
JB: Definitely. My first year at Miss Oklahoma, I didn’t place, but I had a non-finalist scholarship and I’d won my local pageant, so I had enough money to pay for my first semester at OU. The second year, I finished in the Top 10, and that gave me more money to pay for my next year at OU. The next two years I was 3rd Runner-up, so those awards combined to help pay for my third and fourth years at OU. So I actually paid my way through school by competing each year. Once I won Miss Oklahoma, I won a $20,000 scholarship and with Miss America I won a $30,000 scholarship, so now I have $50,000 to finish my degree, and I have no debts to pay back for the past four years. To graduate debt-free is so unusual now, which is a true testament to the Miss America Organization.
PM: Turning to your platform, “Building Intolerance to Drunk Driving and Underage Drinking,” could you tell us about your personal experience with that issue?
JB: The summer before my junior year of high school, on July 4, 1999, my friend and five other people from our school went up to Grand Lake in northeastern Oklahoma. It’s a very popular place to go in the summer. They got ahold of some alcohol, and my friend was riding in the car in the back seat and she did not have her seat belt on. The driver, who’d been drinking, lost control of the vehicle, and it wound up flipping over down into a ravine. My friend was the only one killed. Her death had a huge impact on my school. It was a wake-up call—the first time I realized that underage drinking and drunk driving was even a problem. I started competing a year later, and that’s why I chose that as a platform, having seen firsthand what can happen because of someone’s bad decision-making. That year, when I did research, I found that almost 18,000 people were killed in drunk-driving-related crashes. The number of deaths has come down since then, but there’s still so much more to do.
PM: How have you been able to make a difference?
OUT AND ABOUT: Whether meeting music royalty like Reba McEntire, MADD officials, Wilbur the Pig, the Philly Phanatic, or children such as those she hopes to one day teach, Jennifer Berry lights up lives wherever her busy schedule has taken her.
JB: I was graciously asked by MADD [Mothers Against Drunk Driving] to be a national spokesperson this year. I am the first and only Miss America to support this platform, and with that comes a lot of responsibilities. I have had so many opportunities with MADD to reach so many different audiences. That’s important, because with drunk driving, there’s not just one age group that affected—it affects everybody. Being 23, I can relate to college kids, to high school students, and even middle schoolers. In reaching youth this year with this message, I can explain to them how the decisions I made affected where I am today, and they have a great response to that. Parents, teachers, and school administrators have told me, “We’re grateful to have someone like you who can bring them to understand, instead of a person that kids don’t want to listen to.”
PM: What has it been like hosting the televised Miss America’s Outstanding Teen Pageant and partnering with the CMT network?
JB: It’s always felt natural to me to go onstage. I love being in front of an audience. I love talk shows, I’ve always enjoyed television, and I’ve always enjoyed the opportunity to emcee and host shows.
PM: What are your most memorable experiences as Miss America?
JB: I had never been to Hawaii, and I got to go to Honolulu to work for the Miss Hawaii Pageant. That had to be the most relaxing, fun parts of my year. Other than that, we’ve been so blessed to work with CMT. They have really used Miss America as a staple of their promotions and programming this year. I attended the CMT and the CMA [Country Music Association] Awards, and did a couple of things with MTV. That has shown a whole new side of Miss America by putting us in a celebrity spotlight, which has been so beneficial not only for me but for the Miss America Organization itself.
We still do a lot of work with the USO, so I had the chance to visit Walter Reed and Bethesda hospitals, and visit with soldiers with their wives, their husbands, and children, and get to say “thank you” in person. It really makes the war more real.
PM: On a much lighter note, which celebrity was more fun to meet: the Philly Phanatic or Wilbur the Pig?
JB: Oh, I hate to say it, but I love Wilbur the Pig. That’s because I’m such an elementary school teacher and I love Charlotte’s Web. I went to the Charlotte’s Web movie premiere, and got to meet Reba McEntire, and it was just a sweet, fun time—something different.
PM: What advice do have for our readers?
JB: I spent five years with people having an opinion about what I should look like, what I should say, I should wear, what I should dance to. Everybody had an opinion about who I should be. But it wasn’t until the fifth year that I finally became who I was onstage and in front of the judges. My advice is: At the end of the day, you have to always remember that you are the only person standing on that stage. You’re the only person who’s going to be in that interview room. Always remember that you’ve got to feel good about yourself. Also, think of my story and how many years it took me to reach my goal, and never give up.
PM: Has Miss America changed you, or visa versa?
JB: I think a little bit of both. In the simple ways, I haven’t changed at all. I still prefer to be in comfy clothes and a baseball cap, and I’ve been to all these fancy dinners, but I still prefer to eat Kraft Macaroni and Cheese for dinner. I’m still the same college girl who likes to order $5 pizzas. But, I’ve grown and matured a lot this year. I’m learning how to balance the things I want, and also to be completely selfless in having a year like this past year—a year that’s not your own and you’re giving your entire self to something else. I value the Miss America program so very much, and my goal this year was to give everything I could back to them for what they’ve given to me.
I had a lot of big shoes to fill. I still don’t think of myself in the same realm as all the former Miss Americas. I don’t think I quite comprehend that I’m Miss America even though it’s been 11 months. I’ve tried so hard to maintain that incredible level of representation that all of the other Miss Americas have given to the program. I’m the very first Miss America crowned outside of Atlantic City. I’m the first to have been crowned on CMT television. I hope I’ve given them everything they need to propel this program for the next 50 years.
PM: What lies ahead for you?
JB: I already have quite a few appearances booked after my year as Miss America is over, so I’m going to take that at my own pace. I’m also getting married in the spring. His name is Nathan Gooden, and he lives in North Carolina. So I’ll be in Tulsa until the wedding. I’m going to hopefully finish my degree in the fall, while I hope for the rest of my life to give back to the Miss America program. I plan to stay involved, and be a part of the many Miss Americas to come.
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