PURCELLVILLE, Va. Bright-eyed and nervous, 13-year-old Teresa Scanlan jumped out of the car and waved good-bye to her mom. As the car sped away, Scanlan walked into the local theater to compete for the title of Miss Scotts Bluff County. Wearing a $12 dress from the after-prom sale at J.C. Penney, self-applied make-up, and a mouth full of braces, the frizzy-haired, glasses-wearing girl from rural Nebraska just wanted to try something different from piano competitions.
"I knew she was good, but I didn't know she would win," said Scanlan's mother, Janie.
Four pageant seasons later, Scanlan won Miss Nebraska. She went on to win the title of Miss America 2011. At 17, she was the youngest Miss America since 1938 and the only Nebraskan to hold the title.
Scanlan also is the fourth of seven homeschooled children in a conservative Christian family. Her parents initially were skeptical of pageants. They talked to her about their concerns and made sure she made conscious decisions. But the more her parents learned about the competition, the more they liked it, Scanlan said.
Now that her reign is over, Scanlan has just finished her first semester at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va. She divides her attention between classes and speaking opportunities.
"The balance has been interesting," she said. "I think I overestimated myself and underestimated the classes."
She has pulled six all-nighters so far and has been "two seconds away from quitting." While she wants to be more involved in the college, Scanlan depends on Miss America speaking engagements for income. Still, she's happy she came, even though the past year has been tough on her faith.
Some students at Patrick Henry were unsure of how a national figure would fit in at the 300-student school.
"I thought a major icon would shake things up a bit a PHC," said freshman Noelle Garnier, but added that students are finding her down-to-earth and friendly. "People are realizing she's a person just like anyone else."
Despite the attention that comes with participating in pageants, Scanlan learned early how to come to terms with loneliness. She met new people every day, but everyone came and went. Often she cried herself to sleep in her hotel room.
"It was just me and Him sometimes," she said. "That's why Jesus is my best friend now."
Even harder was the criticism from fellow Christians who accused her of immodesty. But the Miss America pageant is not about appearance, Scanlan said. The majority of the points come from the competitor's scores in the talent and interview competitions. The winner becomes a public speaker, not a model.
Once she won, Scanlan faced other challenges: "The fame is very flattering and I appreciate it, but it starts to feel empty when people are just a fan because of your title. It becomes meaningless very quickly."
But the experience also has been very rewarding, she added. Scanlan has had the opportunity to speak on behalf of charities like the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society. She created a piano album called The Dueling Pianos with Calvin Jones, the creator of the 2016: Obama's America soundtrack and her competition piece, "Whitewater Chopsticks."
Scanlan hopes to attend Harvard Law School after Patrick Henry. After that, she wants to be a stay-at-home mom and work on a future political career. She's already eying one of Nebraska's U.S. Senate seats and repeatedly tells interviewers she plans to run for president one day.
Meanwhile, Scanlan makes news even when she's not trying. The Washington Examiner reported Dec. 4 that Scanlan bought dinner just before Thanksgiving for the car behind her in the Purcellville McDonald's drive-through line. The driver ran up to thank her and recognized her as soon as she rolled the window down.
"She said, 'I believe everybody should have something nice done for them every day,'" Jennifer Helbert told the newspaper. "I reached in and gave her a hug."