Junior wins Miss Clayton High School crown

sgilman@newsobserver.comMarch 31, 2014 

Ten talented girls competed March 22 for the title of Miss Clayton High School 2014.

From hip shaking in short shorts to singing and even a flute solo, the high school girls put forth their best to gain the judges’ favor.

“The competition was very, very tough this year,” said pageant director Amy Plant-Perdue. “The girls were all very talented; they are all very involved in the school in very different ways.”

Since each girl was so accomplished, whether through cheer leading, track or band, Plant-Perdue said it was basically a surprise when the judges chose 16-year-old Caroline Haller, a junior, to be the 2014 queen.

“They are all very involved, all very intelligent,” Plant-Perdue said of the contestants. “I normally do have an idea in the back of my head who it would be, but this year it was a lot harder for me to try to guess.”

“Singing in the Rain” was the theme for the night of gracious glances, swishing dresses and strutting high heels. This year’s charity was the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and the pageant raised $2,500.

Every 38 minutes, Make-A-Wish grants one wish to a child diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. Miss Clayton High School 2013, DeAndrea Hargett, chose Make-A-Wish “because of the wonderful works they do and all the smiles they bring to at-risk children and their families,” she said during a speech at the pageant.

The pageant opened with a dance performed by Hargett and all 10 contestants. With clear umbrellas, pink rain coats and turquoise rain boots, the girls danced a “Singing in the Rain” number in front of glittering, blue raindrops.

Kristen Mercer Johnson is chief executive of Make-A-Wish Eastern North Carolina and was Miss Clayton High School in 1994. She presided over the evening, reading short biographies of each contestant and eventually announcing the winners of each award.

After the opening number, Kensley Leonard, Miss Johnston County 2014, sang “Astonishing” from the musical “Little Women.”

“I will be fearless/Surrendering modesty and grace ... I will be astonishing at last,” she sang.

Hunter Rae Houston, Miss Clayton High School 2012, then sang Bob Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.”

Then the competition began. One by one, the contestants walked across the stage for the casual wear competition. As each one debuted her casual outfit, walking from one corner of the stage to another and pausing long enough to flash a smile at the audience, Johnson read about her interests and activities.

Outfits ranged from senior Kristen Duncan’s skinny white jeans and layered black knit top to senior Karen Villanueva’s coral-colored, long-legged romper.

The talent competition followed specialty acts from Hargett, who is studying vocal performance at University of North Carolina at Pembroke, and Miss South Johnston High School 2014 Morgan Abdalla.

Talents included a variety of singing, dancing and musical performance. Duncan, for instance, romped a country line dance in cowboy boots, short shorts and above-the-waist plaid shirt; Jordan Cooper, the only freshman to take part this year, danced a jazz solo; Melissa Guerro crooned Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You” and Abigail Stagner wore a floor-length fuchsia dress and played flute.

Intermission followed.

For the evening gown competition, members of the high school’s Navy Junior ROTC unit, in full dress uniform, escorted the girls on stage. The contestants told about their interests, why they would like to become the next Miss Clayton High School and their future plans.

After a farewell ceremony to Hargett, Johnson announced the winners of the awards.

Duncan won the People’s Choice Award (for raising the most money for Make-A-Wish) and the Mrs. Carmine Whitley Exemplary Award. The James Lawrence Williams Miss Congeniality Award went to Villanueva, and the Top Sponsorship Sales Award, along with a $200 scholarship, went to Haller. Second runner-up for the crown was junior Taylor Outlaw, and first runner-up was senior Monica Musgrave.

Backstage and breathless, Haller said winning the crown was a complete surprise. “I couldn’t believe it. I just couldn’t believe it,” she said. “It feels completely surreal. I don’t even know what’s going on.”

Haller said practice was a vital part of her journey to the stage. “So much practice all the time,” she said. “It was almost like I had to put everything else in my life on pause to be able to make time for the pageant, but it was definitely worth it because I had so much fun along the way.”

She said she looks forward to filling her role as Miss Clayton High School.

“Since I’m following in the footsteps of DeDe, I really have big shoes to fill, but I really hope to be the bridge between the school, the community and, I guess, local government,” she said. “I just want to be the bridge between all three.”

Plant-Perdue said the role of the queen has become more community oriented in the past couple of years.

“I really wanted Miss Clayton High School to be more than somebody who rode in a couple of parades and called it a day,” she said. Hargett, for instance, made several public appearances, sang at the downtown summer concert series and read to elementary schoolchildren.

“When we changed that and made it more important, we had a lot more girls interested in participating,” Plant-Perdue said.

Last year, 12 girls applied to be in the pageant; this year, 14 applied.

For months, they practiced walking in their heels, held mock interviews, polished their resumes and raised money for Make-A-Wish.

The Miss Clayton High School award includes a $1,000 scholarship the winner receives upon completing her year as queen.

Some of the money raised for Make-A-Wish came from the school’s first-ever movie night on March 7. The event, held at Clayton High School, raised about $1,000, Plant-Perdue said. She added that it helped this year’s pageant reach a new high for fund-raising. “We definitely raised more this year than we ever have,” she said.

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