A WINNER IN HIGH HEELS Now healthily 'thin,' Miss Maryland once fought eating disorders


I magine the torture of wearing nothing but a bathing suit and teetering on high heels before more than 16 million people, the pressure of twirling a baton through two (hopefully) flawless minutes and the tension of gliding through the evening gown/interview phase of the Miss America pageant -- while smiling, always smiling!

But to Debra Fries, who will represent Maryland in the Miss America pageant Saturday, nothing could be tougher than what she's already been through.

"It was the hardest thing I had to do in my life, to admit to myself, 'Debra Fries has an eating disorder. She is not well,' " she said in a recent interview before traveling to Atlantic City for the pageant. "It was a long, hard road to take."

Ms. Fries, 26, said she has completely recovered, and, indeed, it's hard to imagine that this glossy-haired, beautiful and confident woman once sank into the dark depths of anorexia and bulimia.

"I was the featured [baton] twirler at football and basketball games," Ms. Fries said of her years at Texas Christian University. "You hear that every person who goes to school gains weight, and I just didn't feel confident about myself. I felt if I got thin, everything would be better. But what happens is it all crashes down on you. I lost so much weight so quickly, I got ill."

Never hospitalized, Ms. Fries went through therapy on an out-patient basis and feels that although she is thin, she is now a "healthy thin." She disputes the notion that pageants like Miss America are part of the problem behind eating disorders, contributing as they do to the ideal of slenderness as beauty.

She points to the current Miss America, Marjorie Vincent, who indeed is rounder than past winners yet still weighed only 110 pounds -- very low for a 5-foot-6 woman -- at the time she was crowned. And Ms. Fries notes that the pageant's much-vaunted swimsuit competition, where the weight issue most likely would come up, comprises only 15 percent of the contestant's total score.

Eating disorders is one of her two "platforms" -- topics that contestants choose to speak out on. But Ms. Fries is perhaps even more devoted to her second issue, the hearing impaired.

As a fourth-grader, she became enamored of the story of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan. And it was an interest that lasted: Ms. Fries is currently on leave from her job as roving teacher of the hearing impaired in Charles County schools.

She received her master's degree from Gallaudet University in Washington, arriving on campus on the heels of the successful student protests that led to the naming of the first deaf president, I. King Jordan, in the school's history.

"I thought it was great," she said of the students' activism. "It showed that the hearing impaired really do have a voice, and that they do have feelings."

Ms. Fries said she sees discrimination against this group when ++ out with friends who are hearing impaired. "When we go to a restaurant, and they see you signing to each other, they'll take your order and never come back to ask you if everything is OK," she said. "It's an area that really needs to be addressed."

While she hates to temporarily leave her students to compete in pTC Miss America, she believes she can provide an even greater benefit to them by entering the pageant. "I really feel I can be a spokesperson for educating the hearing impaired," said Ms. Fries.

Ms. Fries, who lives in Charlotte Hall in St. Mary's County, said she is excited about the pageant because she has always enjoyed performing. A competitive baton twirler since age 10 -- and a world champ at 16 -- performing before judges and crowds is nothing new.

She was inspired to enter the pageants by her baton teacher, a former Miss New York, who suggested them as a way of funding her education. After three close-but-no-cigar placements in the Miss New York pageant, she decided to give it one more shot in Maryland. Ms. Fries is from Ithaca and moved to this area to attend Gallaudet and then teach.

At 26, this is the last year that she can enter Miss America, so she's giving it her all and hoping to bring the crown back home to her adopted state which, incidentally, has never produced a Miss America. If she wins, she hopes to use the contest money to pursue a doctorate degree.

But there's the present to contend with first -- and this is one tough job, Ms. Fries says.

"I always thought when I was a small child and watching Miss America that these girls were born beautiful and had all this talent, all this intellect just naturally," she said with a don't-I-wish laugh.

Her daily schedule, at least before she left for the contest, went like this: Wake up at 7 a.m. Watch morning news show for two hours. Go to local elementary school gym for one to two hours of baton twirling. Practice until you can do 10 complete and flawless routines. Go home and read the morning paper. Go to the athletic club to work out. Go home and read two more newspapers.

"Then there's the tanning!" said Ms. Fries. "There is a lot of preparation that the general public isn't aware of."

She believes she has an edge of sorts as the only baton twirler in the pageant this year and will perform to a medley of patriotic songs. Her parents and 23-year-old brother will be in the audience cheering her along.

Although she considers herself a competitive and driven person, winning doesn't seem the only thing. She's happy with the experience in the state pageants and sees parallels to what she tries to do for her students in the classroom.

"I think I've learned a lot about myself, I can feel the growth," she said. "In addition to bringing love and warmth into the classroom, my goal is to create a risk-taking environment. I want my students not to be afraid to risk-take, to feel confident and have self-esteem. With that, there's no way they cannot learn."

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