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.