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April 24, 2014

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2010 Miss America from humble beginnings and hand-me-down clothes

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Tom Donoghue/www.donoghuephotography.com

Photographer Tom Donoghue covered the 2010 Miss America Pageant, which included the crowning of Miss Virginia Caressa Cameron, in the Theater for the Performing Arts in Planet Hollywood on Jan. 30, 2010.

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See complete coverage of the 2010 Miss America Pageant.

2010 Miss America Pageant: The Big Night

Photographer Tom Donoghue covered the 2010 Miss America Pageant, which included the crowning of Miss Virginia Caressa Cameron, in the Theater for the Performing Arts in Planet Hollywood on Jan. 30, 2010. Launch slideshow »

2010 Miss America Caressa Cameron

Miss Virginia Caressa Cameron reacts as she is crowned by 2009 Miss America Katie Stam during the 2010 Miss America Pageant at Planet Hollywood. Host Mario Lopez, left, looks on. Launch slideshow »

Mario Lopez

2010 Miss America Caressa Cameron

2010 Miss America's Super Bowl pick

She woke up in a blur yesterday morning from the previous evening’s festivities when she was crowned the 2010 Miss America. By afternoon, she had said her final farewells to her parents to start her new 20,000 mile-a-month marathon schedule for the next 12 months. By midnight last night, she’d landed in New York City. This morning, 22-year-old Caressa Cameron began her Manhattan media blitz.

The ordinary little girl from Fredericksburg, Va., plucked from obscurity first appeared with Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa on their ABC morning talk show. Caressa’s appearance on Extra with host Mario Lopez, who also hosts the pageant, airs tonight.

Before she left Las Vegas and her Miss America suite at Planet Hollywood, I asked Caressa in her first interview after being crowned how she was dealing with the instant transformation: “It feels outstanding. I feel amazing. I mean I can still barely believe it, and I have been Miss America for over an hour. I probably won’t wake up until six months from now and actually realize this happened to me. I kept telling Mario onstage, ‘No way,’ and he kept saying, ‘Yes way.’

“I am so honored. I feel so blessed to be able to not only represent Virginia, but America! I get to represent America! I was biting my lip the whole time. So you might be able to see that on the video of the pageant. Like, oh my gosh, I am trying to inflict pain upon myself, and I still am because I am trying to figure out if this is really real or if I am going to wake up and someone is going to throw cold water on me back in my hotel room.”

Her ascension to the Miss America title and crown is all the more amazing because she also overcame all the odds against it ever happening. Her mom, LaVerne, was one of 12 kids, and her father, Jerome, was one of six who battled a drug addiction before successfully beating it.

“That was something that ravaged our family for a time,” said Caressa, who now gives up her graduate studies in broadcast communications at Virginia Commonwealth University for her year as Miss America. “But he was able to overcome that; he is now a very successful business owner. He is a wonderful man; he is so inspirational. He was an inspiration to me, to let me know I could do and become and overcome anything that I want because it is a dream come true that he even owns a business.”

One of the Miss Virginia sponsors, Tiffany Porter, said she predicted that Caressa would go on to be Miss America when she was only 14, wearing braces and taking part in a southwest Virginia pageant. Tonya Ratliff, Caressa’s personal trainer, added: “I knew the minute I met her. She had this special light.“ Caressa, who had won $35,000 total in previous pageants, won $52,000 from Miss America here.

Caressa said that her own life was a struggle, too, but that’s perhaps where she learned her remarkable “smarts.” She told me: “I have lived a lot of life. My family has gone through so many struggles and because we have been so grounded and because I actually grew up in a time period when I was the only child around, I was always around adult conversation. So I think I am a little wise beyond my years because I was always introduced to a lot of things early. My life, though, absolutely was a struggle.

“There was a time when kids would make fun of me because of the way that I dressed, because we didn’t have lots of money. I was in hand-me-down clothes. I had a unibrow, so kids called me Wolverine. I was made fun of all the time, and for a while, I internalized the things people said about me. I was at a crossroads at a point. Then it was an actual Miss Virginia who came into my school and told me to turn negative energy into positive energy. From that moment on, I threw myself into the arts, and I decided that I was no longer going to allow other people to define who I am and how I feel about myself.

“So that is what I hope to encourage other young people to do as Miss America. Gosh, I am not even used to saying it yet. I hope to encourage people as Miss America to define yourself, pave your way. Be who you were meant to be and not what other people want you to be. Just because your circumstances are a certain way, you don’t have to give into them. You can do something amazing, like becoming Miss America. ”

She laughed that both Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer better look out when she starts her broadcast journalism career. “I hope there will be an eventual door open for me. That I can pave my own way in the anchor world.”

Even though she was separated from her parents and other family members while in the pageant, Caressa took part in a nightly prayer meeting by telephone. She said: “I could not physically be in the prayer group with them, of course, because we are not allowed to see our families, but they made it a point to call me every night before I went to bed. We would say a prayer, and just like I was saying onstage when it was down to the final three contestants, ‘Thy will be done.’

That was the prayer I had been saying since I left Fredericksburg to the time I got to Las Vegas. Whatever was supposed to be for me would be for me. It was like God’s will for me to be Miss America at this time, and I’m so blessed with that. My family are my backbone -- 100 percent -- they’ve kept me grounded, kept me centered and making sure I always looked my best and only said the right things, never doing anything embarrassing.”

I chatted with her Mom and Dad at Planet Hollywood, while our loyal Vegas DeLuxe reader Richard Corey recorded these videos for YouTube. Said LaVerne: “We knew she was special, but I just kept on praying.” Jerome told me he knew when Caressa reached the final three that she would win. “I told my wife that we should be getting ready to be the parents of Miss America. LaVerne just looked at me blankly. When we were called, she accidentally forgot her proper shoes, and we went on the stage with LaVerne in her sneakers.

“I always told Caressa to be whatever she wanted to be and not to let anyone stop her. She will make a difference in so many ways -- for the Miss America Organization, for America itself. She’s really passionate about using her life to make a difference in other people’s lives, in our country’s life. She will impact America because that’s the way she is. Maybe the broadcast journalism might eventually lead to politics and The White House.”

Caressa told me that like the other 52 contestants, she had packed her one suitcase for the year ahead. I asked if there was a beauty queen secret she could share. “You cannot do a thing without safety pins,” she confessed. “Absolutely never be without them. Before I got to Miss America, my original competition dress, which looked very similar to the one I wore onstage, was shrunk at the cleaners. I got this one in one day before I competed for the evening gown portion. If it wasn’t for the help of some safety pins, I don’t think I would have looked as good in it as I do.”

Tomorrow morning at 7 ET, former Miss America Gretchen Carlson, who hosts Fox & Friends, will interview Caressa on Fox News Channel. Then Caressa shows up as the surprise guest on The Wendy Williams Show and later will do an interview for tomorrow evening’s Inside Edition. Caressa also will be interviewed for Parade Magazine. The busy schedule keeps on going with her first appearance at new sponsor DSW in Manhattan’s Union Square.

Then Wednesday afternoon, she flies to Florida for the Super Bowl charity chef’s fundraiser Taste of the NFL. She’ll make appearances in advance of her turning up on Sunday for the showdown between the Indianapolis Colts and the New Orleans Saints. She’s secretly rooting for the Saints but says, as Miss America, she must remain impartial!

No sooner does Miss America leave town that plans shift into high gear for the Miss USA Pageant on May 16 on NBC. As in previous years, the event will be broadcast live from Planet Hollywood’s Theater for the Performing Arts, the same site as the Miss America Pageant. It will be an entire night of Donald Trump television. In addition to owning the Miss USA Pageant, The Donald will kick off the new season of Celebrity Apprentice. Last year’s Miss USA Pageant was watched by more than 7 million viewers.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.