ORLANDO, Fla. – When Ericka Dunlap was crowned Miss America in 2004, she didn’t realize it was a job she would have for the rest of her life.
“It’s a job for the rest of your life, I didn’t know that signing up for it,” said Dunlap. “But I’m grateful for it, because 17, 18 years later, I’m still able to make an impact on my community, I still have a platform, that’s really huge for me. I worked my entire life to get it, so I get to have it for the rest of my life and that’s a privilege.”
But she said her road to the crown started in her living room here in the City Beautiful watching with her family when she was a child.
“It was exciting, every single pageant that would come on television,” said Dunlap. “Back in those days, we would take a piece of paper and you would write out who your favorites were and you would have your top ten, and if you girl made it to the top ten, of course you would rejoice, and if your girl won, you were like, you won just as much as she did.”
But it was one particular winner who first inspired an 8-year-old Ericka as an African-American.
“So the first Miss America that I really recall was when Debbye Turner Bell won in 1990, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I want to be just like her,’” said Dunlap. ”And that night actually I somewhat got reprimanded because I went to the bathroom and started going through my mom’s makeup. I went through her makeup and I was putting on makeup and I took my hair down. It was on a Saturday night, so it worked out well except for the fact that my hair wasn’t done and I had to go to church the next day and it was a hot mess. I had taken it out of my pigtails because I wanted to look just like her. She was just a representation of what it meant to be smart and beautiful and talented and intelligent and all the things. She was just the ideal for me. And so watching her and then watching Marjorie Vincent be crowned and then Kim Aiken, the connection was there because I thought one day I could actually do that as well.”
Years later, when Dunlap competed for the Miss Florida title for the third time, she learned Debbye Turner Bell would actually be one of her judges.
“When I found out that she was going to be a judge, that was moment of truth. It was like okay, all of these years have culminated in this moment,” said Dunlap. “And when I saw her in the interview room, I wasn’t nervous. I was just blown away at how angelic she looked. You know, she was everything I imagined and she was six feet away from me and that was very special to know she was apart of tapping me, if you will.”
Dunlap won the Miss American 2004 title as the first and only Black Miss Florida, and with the crown came a legacy and a sisterhood.
“When I think about it, I had all of their pictures on my wall at some point,” said Dunlap. “I was in college even and I would have pictures of all of these Miss Americas on my wall. I guess it was the beginning phases of a vision board, if you will, so I envisioned them and I would look at them and I knew factoids about each and every one of them. And for me to be friends and sisters with them and share life moments with them has been really exciting. It’s really been an honor because I got to learn how to be a Miss America and be a real person with real woman issues. I credit Leanza Cornett who was the first Miss Florida to win Miss America. I’m the second, and I credit her quite a bit for her showing me what it meant to be real and normal and live a life that is full of fabulous flaws. She helped me a lot by being transparent and really honest.”
“So many people think it’s just a farce, or that it’s make-believe or that it’s not worthwhile until you know somebody who’s in it. A lot of times people will say to me, ‘Oh, you’re nothing like what I imagined’ and I’m thinking, ‘Well, what did you imagine and why?’ Don’t watch these movies and think just because you’re in a pageant, you’re plastic and not real,” said Dunlap. “Actually, pageant winners are some of the most polished, and pageant participants, even if you didn’t win, some of the most polished, and well-spoken and well-put together women.”
As a forever Miss America, Dunlap now works helping other women find their inner queen.
“All of us need help accomplishing our goals,” said Dunlap. “So just helping them pull out, what are your strengths, and let’s look at what the positives are and let’s not focus on the weaknesses that are keeping you down.”
And this year, Dunlap added a new title... mom.
“I’m looking forward to my daughter not only seeing what I have accomplished and doing those things and setting her own goals, but I’m just excited that I have this network of people I get introduce her to and envelope in her life so that she is just a very well-rounded individual,” said Dunlap. “I want my daughter to grow up to want to be a full package, as a person, whatever that means. And to me, that means that you recognize that you have some talent, you recognize that you have intellect, and you put it all together and you can put on a nice outfit and present it to the world. Every day is a beauty pageant for everybody. Literally, you leave out of your house with a panel of unsuspecting judges and you have to present your very best self in order to win for the day, so, every day is a beauty pageant.”