Featured in SceneSmiling, Christina Denny took the stage with the 52 other hopefuls in preparation for the Miss America competition earlier this month.

Flanked by towering entrants, the 5-foot-6-inch Owings Mills native performed fast-paced choreography with precision. The years of being a competitive gymnast and cheerleader paid off; so had trying out for the Miss Maryland pageant three times before being crowned in June.

"Losing Miss Maryland three times could be depressing," Denny, 22, said minutes before taking the stage for the closed-door rehearsal in Boardwalk Hall, site of the competition. "But I'm a driven person. It made me work even harder to meet those goals. If I was younger, I wouldn't have been ready for the title. But each year I gained maturity and became more comfortable on stage. ... I understood this organization as a whole."

That weekend, Denny, a special-education teacher and tutor for children with autism, became a top-10 finalist in the pageant. Though she ultimately lost to Miss New York, Nina Davuluri, Denny has bounced back — and recently shared with The Baltimore Sun her experiences and secrets of pageant life.

The competition "has taught me about how the world works," she said. "When I started, I was pretty naive. It has been interesting to see how people who run a business interact with each other. I learned ... how to market myself and charities that I am personally involved in."

Denny's love of modeling and the prospect of scholarship money lured her into pageants. But her family wasn't so sure at first.

"I was hesitant," said her mother, Sheryl Denny. "I went to a women's college, and the message I got was that women could excel in other ways." But eventually, she reconsidered. "The scholarships, the incentives to get very good grades — these incentives have been very valuable to her educational career. She's developed a platform that was in line with her career goals. ... It's not just about the dresses."

Preparation started months ago and included working with a personal trainer and an interview coach to ready herself for the weeklong competition that culminated with a two-hour national broadcast Sept. 15.

"It makes me feel good about all I've done to get here up to this point," Denny said backstage one evening during the competition. She was still pageant-appropriate: erect posture; straight, golden hair resting against her back; a natural smile that never faded — plus BCBG beige moto jacket paired with a red lace top by Free People and her first pair of True Religion skinny jeans (given to each contestant).

With the interview coach, "We worked on a lot of different things: mental preparation; what to expect as far as competition; making sure my answers are direct, concise and that I don't ramble" — an appropriate skill, considering some notorious pageant faux pas. "We went over my platform. It helped a lot."

All the advance work set up Denny for the competition — when she was essentially on her own. She was allowed about 30 minutes a day to meet with friends and family. Cellphones were confiscated.

Achieving the look

You would think that Denny, who was a competitive gymnast as a child and a cheerleader at the University Maryland, College Park, would naturally appear swimsuit-ready. (She was a repeat winner of the swimsuit portion of the Miss Maryland pageant.) Still, she met with a personal trainer in preparation for Atlantic City.

She drove 45 minutes to Dynamic Fitness in Frederick two to three times a week to work with Charles Dorsey Jr. Her routine included cross fit, weight lifting and "a lot" of running.

"I had been doing my own workouts," she said. "But he was able to focus on areas: Make my arms a little more toned, making my butt look bigger — trying to make me appear more curvy than I am. Making me look healthy. That was my main motivation."

Heading to the competition, Denny took only two pieces of luggage and two carry-ons (so she'd be ready for immediate travel in case she won the crown). They contained her beauty products and two competition gowns — an opulent white dress for the evening gown segment and a pink-patterned Sherri Hill gown that she wore for her talent performance, in which she sang "For Good" from the Broadway musical "Wicked."

There are rituals associated with beauty pageants. Think rubbing Vaseline on teeth so that lips and lipstick don't stick to the enamel. Or wearing padded underwear to display more curves. Denny said she doesn't do that, but others do.

The most important product in her arsenal is called "butt glue." The adhesive prevents bathing suits from bunching, she said.

"It helps your bathing suit stay in place so that you don't get a wedgie," she said with a laugh. "We want to avoid all wardrobe malfunctions while we're on stage."

Other contestants use double-sided tape and duct tape to avoid shifting garments, she said.

She maintained her bronzed complexion with "a lot" of tanning lotion.

Denny perfected her hair and makeup skills by watching video tutorials on YouTube.

As a result, she assembled an array of beauty products. Top on her list was Big Sexy Hair, a brand of hair spray and moisturizing hair serums.

Denny said a hairstyling session at Soft Images Salon in Frederick, which was Denny's official hair sponsor, was most important.

"When I go on stage, I want my hair to look perfect," she said.

Pageant life

Denny found her fellow contestants quite collegial.

"We definitely bonded," she said. "These girls are amazing. Once you talk to them and hear their story, you really start to appreciate them as people. That is something."

In particular, Denny clicked with her roommate, Miss Montana, Sheridan Pope, who Denny called "hilarious" and the "class clown" of the group.

Still, "in a competition like this you have to consider everyone a competitor. It's mostly about yourself. The most important thing was making sure I did the best I knew how to do. I had to go out there and give it my all."

That also meant sacrificing a favorite food the night of the finals.

"Because I'm a singer, I couldn't eat pizza because of the dairy and my throat," she said. "But the minute it ended, the very first thing I did was to eat a piece of pizza; I just grabbed a piece and ate it in my gown."

The night of the finals, Denny said her confidence began to increase.

"As it went on, I thought I could make [the] top five. And I could win," she said. "Of course, that did not happen. But I did get the chance to sing on national television. It was a dream come true."

In the audience, her mother stood with other parents.

"It was a good night," said Sheryl. "We're very happy with where she placed."

Denny said she could see her supporters while competing, which was a comfort. "Knowing that so many people were watching me and supporting me felt good," she said.

Behind the scenes of the live broadcast, Denny recalled a frantic pace. "We had about two to three minutes between," she said. "We had to change and go."

After Denny sang, the magnitude of her accomplishment sank in.

"I ran back in the dressing room and yelled, 'I got to sing on national TV,' " she said.

After the pageant

"I had such mixed feeling at the end," Denny said. "I was relieved that it was over. But I knew I would miss the girls after I got home."

Denny said she spent the immediate days after the pageant relaxing and "catching up on some sleep." Following that, she said she would go back to being Miss Maryland.

"I retain the title until June," she said. "That will be my primary job."

Denny said she plans to work part time as a tutor and apply to graduate schools in speech pathology.

Her top 10 finish in Atlantic City guaranteed her $7,000, which she said would go toward graduate school. Her earnings associated from the Miss Maryland title paid off her undergraduate degree.

"I'm going to get started on my grad school applications and send those out," she said. "That will be the next thing that I do. That will be the next chapter of my life."

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

How to look like Miss Maryland

Joey Killmeyer, the celebrity makeup artist who did Miss Maryland's makeup in Atlantic City, shares how he achieved Christina Denny's look using R.E.I.G.N., the official cosmetics of the pageant.

"I started by using R.E.I.G.N. Velvet Face Primer. Not only does it fill in pores and fine lines, it preps your skin for foundation and helps it stay on all day.

"To create her soft daytime eye, I used the Stay Put Eye Primer, which prevents creasing and gives you a full color experience from your eye shadows. For the eye, I used R.E.I.G.N.'s Bronzing duo. I used the light shade as a base all over the lid, and took the bronze shade using a fluffy teardrop-shaped blending brush and blended it into the crease. I then took R.E.I.G.N.'s Sheer Perfection Pressed Powder in light on the lid. This make her eyes look bigger and brighter and wide awake.

"With R.E.I.G.N.'s Duo Bronzer I sculpted the cheek bones using the bronze shade under the cheekbone. This will help your cheekbones pop.

"To create the perfect nude lip, I applied R.E.I.G.N.'s chunky lip crayon in Nude Rose on the lip and applied the fabulous Lip nectar on top to give a slight shine and keep the lips moist.

"We did not want any shine due to the fact that she was being filmed in [high definition,] so we kept her skin pretty matte. Although you need a little glow, I finished up using the light shade in the Bronze duo right on the cheekbone, just to give a slight reflection when the light hit her."

Typical day at competition

5:30 a.m. Wake up, shower, and do hair and makeup.

7 a.m. Pickup from the hotel and head to Boardwalk Hall.

8 a.m. General rehearsals begin (go over all dances and vignettes as well as walking patterns).

11:45 a.m. Leave general rehearsals for media interviews.

12:15 p.m. Lunch break.

1 p.m. Talent rehearsal.

1:30 p.m. Return to general rehearsal.

4 p.m. Get ready for evening appearance.

5 p.m. Leave Boardwalk Hall for appearance.

5:30 p.m. Arrive at appearance, beginning with "photo ops" for media.

6 p.m. Sit down for dinner.

7:30 p.m. Leave for another VIP event.

10:30 p.m. Arrive back at Boardwalk Hall.

11:15 p.m. Arrive back at hotel and prep for the next day.