'Incredible' pageant experience

For two weeks, a Taylorsville teen lived the life of a celebrity - dressing in full-length evening gowns, singing on stage, signing autographs, and getting police escorts when traveling.

Then July 3, her 19th birthday, Brooke Poklemba watched herself on television competing in the America's Junior Miss National Finals.


Poklemba won the Maryland Junior Miss pageant and $1,800 in scholarship money in March. She went on to compete in the national pageant right after graduating from McDonogh School in Owings Mills.

A rising college freshman from every state converged on Mobile, Ala., for the competition, which awards money in the form of scholarships. Poklemba did not win any awards in the national pageant, but called the experience "incredible."


"I don't want to sound corny or anything, but I made in two weeks some of the best friends I have ever made in my entire life," Poklemba said.

Contestants were judged in five areas: scholastics (20 percent), interview (25 percent), fitness (15 percent), talent (25 percent) and poise (15 percent). The winner received $50,000, with smaller amounts going to runners-up.

Judges evaluated each contestant's academic record, and interviewed each girl for 10 minutes. The fitness portion was a choreographed kick boxing routine.

"It's hard," said Poklemba, who will play field hockey for Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., this fall. "It's real fitness, but that's what I like about the program. It isn't just a swimsuit competition and whoever has the best body."

Poklemba sang "Over the Rainbow" in the talent portion. She said she plans to sing in college and hopes to become a country singer.

For the self-expression section, each contestant picked a gown to wear and spoke about a moment in her life she would like to relive. Poklemba wore a dress donated by designer Victor Rossi of Baltimore and discussed a trip she took with the adventure group Outward Bound, when she climbed a 13,800-foot mountain in Colorado.

During their two weeks in Mobile, contestants signed autographs, played softball, had a luau at a retirement home, attended a prom and participated in a "Day of Caring." Poklemba volunteered at a homeless shelter, shucking corn.

Shuttled in vans


The girls were shuttled around in police vans, banned from going anywhere alone. They spent their first week in Mobile hotel rooms and then stayed with a host family.

Unlike past years, America's Junior Miss was presented as a reality television show, in an attempt to gain more popularity, more sponsors and more scholarship money. The first hour of the show was behind-the-scenes coverage, and the second hour showed clips from the pageant, focusing on the finalists.

Poklemba's first competition was Miss Teen Maryland, where she was a runner-up. Then she won the Maryland Junior Miss pageant before competing for the national title. But she said she would not enter another pageant unless she needed scholarship money.

"The Junior Miss program is the best out there, and I don't think anything is as pure as that program," she said.

As Maryland Junior Miss, Poklemba will be talking about the program and singing at events, as well as talking to students on the topic "Be Your Best Self," the official program of Junior Miss. The program works to encourage youth to improve themselves by resisting peer pressure, staying fit and studying.

Poklemba's mother - the former Cheryl Gaver - was Frederick County's Junior Miss in 1973 and a runner-up at the state pageant, which helped finance her education at Frostburg State. She said that in principle, the program hasn't changed.


"It's another way for a gal to compete for scholarship dollars, showcase their talent and build confidence," said Cheryl Poklemba.

Broken tiara

In 1973, when she won the county title, she was presented with a tiara. Brooke later broke the crown, which served as a motivation for her to enter the pageant.

Today, however, the Junior Miss program presents winners with medallions, in an attempt to distance itself from typical beauty pageants, said Cheryl Poklemba, 48.

Brooke Poklemba watched the television broadcast with several friends.

"[The broadcast] doesn't give the experience justice," she said. "Going to nationals and meeting the 49 girls, I have learned so much about myself."