I remember it like it was yesterday. The year was 1999 and I had just started my freshman year at Transylvania. I was head over heels in love with college. Every class was a revelation. Every new girlfriend was a friend for life. Every day the first day of the rest of my life. Me and a group of my new girlfriends had run down to the campus center where there was a giant television.
It was September 18, 1999, and the Miss America pageant was on.
I was never a huge Miss America fan. I didn’t dream about being crowned as a little girl or compete in pageants. I would watch if I happened to be in front of the TV on that particular night but would never search it out. After all, Miss Kentucky had never won. It was always so disappointing when she didn’t make the cut and we only saw her for a few seconds in the beginning introductions.
“I’m Miss Kentucky!”
And that was it. However, that night one of my new found girlfriends was from Maysville. Miss Kentucky was from her hometown. Her name was Heather French and Cady insisted that she was going to win.
The night seemed impossibly large already. We were at the end of sorority rush. We had just attended our last Preference Party. Dressed up and full of anticipation, we had each signed our preference cards and had to wait until tomorrow to see if the sorority we wanted wanted us as well.
That night came at an important part in the process for all of us as freshman girls. The lines had not yet been drawn. We still identified with each other more than with our yet-to-be-determined sisters. We weren’t Phi Mu’s or Chi O’s yet. We were still just girls. The only characteristic that mattered that night was one.
We were Kentucky girls and we wanted Miss Kentucky to win.
As we gathered around the TV, the final minutes of the pageant were playing out. Cady was right. Miss Kentucky was in the Final Five!
Then the Osmonds were calling runners up. Fourth runner up, third runner up, only Miss Kentucky and Miss Illinois were left. As Marie called Miss Illinois as the final runner up and the exhilaration flooded Heather French’s face, we all squealed with delight.
Miss Kentucky had just been crowned Miss America!
Not just ANY Miss America, she was Miss America 2000. She was the first Miss Kentucky to be crowned the winner and it felt like she had won the crown for the entirety of the 21st Century. Waves of pride swept over me and everything about Heather French seemed perfect. This was not some Barbie-doll blonde from Texas. She was brunette! She had short hair and dimples for days and she was FROM KENTUCKY!
Being a Kentuckian isn’t always easy. When you want to be at the top of the list, Kentucky is often at the bottom - most educated populace or fewest gun deaths. When you want to be at the bottom of the list, Kentucky is often at the top - obesity rate or most teenage pregnancies. We are the butt of jokes and the basis for many a stereotype.
I have never once been embarrassed to be from Kentucky BUT, every once in a while, it’s nice to be able to brag...about something besides sports. THAT night I could brag. THAT night every little girl in the country wanted to be from Kentucky.
But THAT night surrounded by girlfriends, I actually was.
~ Sarah Stewart Holland