Cover Story


Dalton shares a meal with the troops during a visit to the Marine Barracks Washington.

Kristen's Conquest

It all happened so fast. One minute she was a college student,
then Miss North Carolina and then Miss USA, living in Manhattan,
chatting with Jay Leno and walking miles of red carpets.

Scroll down to see a photo album and a video clip

By Samantha Thompson Hatem '90

es, she’s Dalton Crowneda beautiful blue-eyed blonde with a dazzling white smile and a bright, bubbly personality who is everything you might think of when it comes to Southern beauty queens. But Miss USA Kristen Dalton also is a hard-working, highly organized go-getter who was a busy senior honors student before she postponed graduation last spring semester to chase her dream.

She says her ECU experience was the reserve of strength she drew on to stand calmly on stage at the Miss USA pageant, hearing her name called again and again as the field of 50 was cut to 10, then to five, then to two. Then the crown was on her head, a moment she had dreamed about since she was 3.

To get to that moment, Dalton had juggled a double major, a part-time job and being involved in leadership positions in several campus groups—she was president of her sophomore class—while at the same time preparing for and competing in pageants.

“I’ve worked so hard to be here and this has been my lifelong dream and it’s finally here,” she told the Associated Press after she won. “And whoever knew you could win in a turquoise gown?”

There were setbacks along the way; she missed the brass ring at several pageants before being crowned Miss North Carolina USA 2009, which propelled her to the Miss USA pageant last April in Las Vegas.

Kristen Dalton“I’m just so happy for her that she accomplished what she set out to achieve,” says her mom, Jennie Dalton of Wilmington, where Kristen grew up. “And to look back and see all that she’s done. Nothing has stopped her.”

Simply put, Dalton was determined. She says she spent years visualizing what her life would be like if she won, not just winning but also moving to New York and taking on the daily duties of being Miss USA. She even packed her schedule while at ECU so that she’d have the stamina to make it through the long days of public appearances and TV interviews.

The power of visualization paid off. Dalton’s been on "The Today Show" and rubbed shoulders with Jay Leno and other such celebrities. It’s certainly a bigger stage but, she says, an experience that’s not unlike the many times she stood in front of campus VIP visitors to perform skits with the ECU Ambassadors (right).

“She’s spent her whole life working towards this,” Jennie Dalton says.

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‘Such a surreal feeling’
Kristen Dalton

Maybe it’s in her genes

iss USA Kristen Dalton comes from a family known for its success in beauty pageants.  Her mom, Jennie Boger Dalton, was crowned Miss North Carolina USA in 1982. She married Alan Dalton, and together they have four children, including three daughters who have all been pageant competitors.

Julia Dalton won Miss North Carolina Teen USA in 2008 and later went on to win second runner-up at Miss Teen USA that same year. Sister Kenzie Dalton was a first runner-up in Miss North Carolina Teen USA pageant. She is an actress who is engaged to actor Chad Michael Murray. The two met on the set of One Tree Hill, where she had a role as a cheerleader.

But the family’s greatest pageant success so far has been Kristen, who was Miss Greater Wilmington two years before competing in the Miss North Carolina USA pageant. In 2005, she was first runner-up in Miss North Carolina Teen USA.

After earning so many crowns, it’s a disappointment that what would be her last pageant didn’t end as well as the others. She placed in the top 10 at the Miss Universe pageant held in the Bahamas in August.

East Carolina has had its share of pageant winners. At least seven other students have won tiaras, including Miss North Carolina 2003 Dana L. Reason ’02 and Monica Palumbo, who was Miss North Carolina USA in 2001. Palumbo went on to win Miss Congeniality in the Miss USA pageant.

Other noteworthy winners from ECU include: Lynn Willford ’79, who was Miss North Carolina in 1981; Mary Rudroff Patterson ’71, who was Miss North Carolina USA in 1971; Patsy Gail Wood ’69, who was Miss North Carolina in 1971; Anita Johnson Comitor, who won the Miss North Carolina crown in 1969; and Betty Lane Evans, who was Miss North Carolina 1959 and later was a semifinalist in the Miss America pageant.

Juggling the demands of college and the pressures of the pageant world isn’t easy. It takes a special type of student, says Reason, a political science major at ECU who now lives in Raleigh and owns a line of skin care and cosmetics called Dana L.

“You have to be very focused, very determined and have great time management skills,” she said. “I think healthy competition brings out the best in people. I have seen it transform many people’s lives.”
—Samantha Thompson Hatem

alton’s first taste of pageant success came in 2005 when she was first runner-up in the Miss North Carolina Teen USA pageant. The next year, she won Miss Greater Wilmington and placed in the top 10 in the Miss North Carolina pageant. In late 2008, she won the Miss North Carolina USA 2009 crown. She won the Miss USA title on the strength of her top scores in the swimsuit and evening gown competitions.

“It was such a surreal feeling,” she said about winning. “It was almost like it wasn’t happening. It was kind of like a dream. I was like ‘What?’ Everything was happening so fast that night.”

She said the entire pageant went by so quickly. Before she knew it, she was in the top five, then the top two. “I was like ‘Hold on a second. What just happened? I’m in the top two with Miss California?’ And she was so gorgeous. I was just stunned.”

Winning was all that she had dreamed about and visualized, she said. In front of family and friends and wearing a flowing turquoise gown, she seemed visually shocked after she heard Miss California named first runner-up, making her the next Miss USA.

“It was so magical,” she said. “It was everything I wanted it to be.”

What followed the pageant, however, wasn’t so magical, yet it proved to be a teaching tool of sorts on how to gracefully accept a crown and title—and all the drama that sometimes goes with it.

Much of it involved former Miss California, Carrie Prejean. During the question-and-answer session of the pageant, Prejean was asked by one the pageant judges about her views on same-sex marriage. Prejean said she was opposed to gay marriage.

Dalton, meanwhile, got caught up in the media storm that followed. The controversy trailed her to post-pageant interviews on shows such The Today Show, where she tactfully and diplomatically handled questions about Prejean and the issue of same-sex marriage.

“It’s been a learning and growing experience, a lot of self-discovery,” she said.

Dana L. Reason ’02 of Raleigh, who was Miss North Carolina in 2003, said she sympathizes with Dalton. Reason took the Miss North Carolina crown the year after Misty Clymer and Rebeka Revels fought their public battle over who was the rightful winner of the Miss North Carolina title.

“I know what it’s like to be the title holder in a year when there’s been a scandal,” Reason said. “Kristen has done an extraordinary job of holding her head up high. It’s not easy when a reporter comes up and asks a question that has nothing to do with you.”

Reason said Dalton has had plenty of pressure to buck up the pageant system amid the controversy. “She certainly has overcome a lot,” she said. “That certainly speaks to her character.”

Dalton says she’s been able to take what’s happened, reflect on it and learn from it to help make positive changes in her own life. One big lesson: Be yourself rather than giving canned answers designed just to give people what they want to hear.

“I was always concerned about being perfect and impressing other people when it comes to my boss or my teacher,” she says. “This year, I’ve kind of learned that nobody likes that. It doesn’t really appeal to anybody. It’s better to be real and say what’s on your mind.”

'My mom wanted it to be my decision'

he Prejean drama likely wasn’t part of the Miss USA life she imagined when she was a child watching pageants at home with the family in Wilmington. Watching pageants was a family event back then, she says. “It was like a holiday at our house,” Dalton says.

On pageant nights, there were bowls of popcorn and cups of orange juice in front of the TV. They’d make lists of who would make it into the top 10 and they’d all have score cards, Jennie Dalton says.

Even then, Dalton favored the Miss USA crown over the Miss America crown. “I always looked up to Miss USA,” Dalton says. “I always felt like Miss USA was more fresh and relevant, a little bit more natural.”

The other major difference: The Miss USA pageant, which is owned by Donald Trump, doesn’t have a talent portion, while the Miss America pageant requires contestants to perform a talent.

But that likely wouldn’t have been a problem for Dalton. She’s a natural in the limelight. A 2005 graduate of J.T. Hoggard High School in Wilmington, she grew up performing in front of an audience, most recently at the Opera House Theater Company at Thalian Hall in Wilmington.

Dalton’s initial fascination with pageants was purely based on what she saw on TV. She says her mother didn’t push her into the business, even though her mother is herself a former beauty queen. She was Miss North Carolina USA in 1982. Kristen Dalton’s two sisters, Julia and Kenzie, also are involved in beauty pageants.

When Kristen turned 17, she made the decision to take a shot at the Miss Teen North Carolina pageant. “My mom wanted it to be my decision,” she says. “She wanted it to be at an age for me when it’s meaningful.”

But Dalton had been setting the stage for her eventual involvement in the pageant business years before that. In seventh grade, she decided she was going to be a role model, her mother says. “She decided she was going to keep a clean slate,” she says. “She didn’t drink, she didn’t smoke. She wanted to remain abstinent.”

Each pageant helped shape her in one way or another, helping build strong self-esteem and confidence, Kristen Dalton says. She also was able to hone interpersonal and communication skills, which are essential in tackling the relentless daily life of a beauty queen.

“It’s about competing with yourself and being at your personal best,” she says. “Every girl brings something different to the table, a different look, a different background, a different platform.”

Life as an ECU student
Dalton dines with a group of Marines during an event sponsored by the Pentagon to promote motorcycle safety. U.S. Navy photo

he continued competing even after enrolling at ECU, a school she picked in part because of the school spirit. She readily admits, though, that what really sold her was the school’s Student Recreation Center, where Dalton landed a job as a fitness trainer. “I love working out,” she says. “I love fitness.”

She wasted no time immersing herself in student life at ECU. One of her favorite groups was the ECU Ambassadors. “I just love that organization and all the people,” she says. “The people had a lot of spirit.”

As president of her sophomore class, Dalton set a goal of getting the student body more involved in volunteerism. She worked to develop a student-to-student mentoring program that would pair study abroad students with other students to help familiarize them with American culture. She was involved in Omicron Delta Kappa, an honorary leadership organization that recognizes those who have reached a high standard in college activities. And she was vice president of the psychology honors society.

Dalton says her busy schedule at ECU helped prepare her for the full days as Miss USA. She kept it all in order with a color-coded day planner, which she decorated with stickers and glittery pens to help make “being busy fun.”

“I’ve always been very involved,” she says. “It’s something that’s a lifestyle that I enjoy and I’m really good at planning my schedule.”

She started out as an international business major. But after taking an introduction to psychology class from Dr. Jeannie Golden, she started rethinking her academic future. She took five classes under Golden and eventually she changed her major to psychology, hoping the degree might one day help her help others.

Golden says she had no idea Dalton was involved in pageants until Dalton came up to her after class one day and told her she was Miss North Carolina USA.
“What impressed me about her was that she wasn’t a phony and full of herself in the least,” she says. “She struck me as humble and nice. She would talk to me about friends and relatives. She was a natural to be a psychologist.”

Dalton has three Spanish classes left to graduate. But she won’t be back on campus to get those last few credits. Instead, she plans to go to a Spanish-speaking country, where she hopes the cultural immersion will translate into class hours so she can graduate.

From her new home in New York City, Dalton plans to take advantage of a two-year scholarship to the N.Y. Film Academy, which was part of the package of winning Miss USA. She also has her eye on a TV hosting gig, with one specific show in mind. Dalton says she wants to work for The Balancing Act, a Lifetime TV show that brings together two of her favorite things: talking to people and women’s issues including health. “It’s the perfect combination of my interests,” she says.

Advocating women’s health

 Kristen Dalton, Dr Milligan
During a tour of the Nevada Cancer Institute, Dalton was briefed by the institute's director, Dr. Karen Milligan '00 (left)

er typical day as Miss USA is varied and full, often spent working on the pageant’s platform initiatives, including supporting breast and ovarian cancer research. She says it’s rewarding work that had helped her see more about how the diseases impact women. As part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, she spent several days in a van traveling to New York’s five boroughs passing out flyers to educate and encourage women on the importance of breast self-exams.

“I’ve met so many women who are 60 years old and never had a mammogram,” she says. “It’s so crazy to find out how uneducated people are about their bodies and their health.”

One day, she might read to developmentally disabled children. The next, she’s testing her skills on TV’s Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader. She’s also made time to take part in a few events in North Carolina. In September, she was in Wilmington for an immigration ceremony. She later took part in the Duke Cancer ovarian cancer walk in
Durham. And in October, she was in Raleigh to celebrate military honorees at the USO North Carolina Gala.

No beauty queen’s life would be complete without the glamour and glitz, and Dalton says she gets her fill. Each week, she makes appearances at two to three red-carpet events. One recent one was to honor fashion designer Calvin Klein.

She has a stylist to help her prepare for the big nights out. But Dalton likely could hold her own on the red carpet. She says she loves fashion, with dress designer Nicole Miller among her favorites. During New York Fashion Week in September, she went to Christian Siriano’s and Custo Barcelona’s runway shows.

But while she loves designer clothes, she’s not willing to pay full price for it. Dalton says she’s a serious bargain hunter, whether it’s shopping at T.J. Maxx or at her new favorite New York boutique, Mystique. “I love shopping,” she says. “It’s kind of a weakness. But I only shop at bargain places.”

She’s also the kind of girl who, when home for visit in Wilmington, likes to bake chocolate-chip cookies, power walk “the loop” in Wrightsville Beach with her sisters and watch Lifetime movies. “They’re inspired by true stories,” she says. “And I kind of like that. I like the suspense.”

While she likes suspense on the TV, it’s not something she has enjoyed during her reign. Dalton says she hopes her remaining months as Miss USA will be less controversial and more focused on supporting the Miss USA platform initiatives.

“I’m looking forward to the second half of being Miss USA,” she says. “There were a lot of challenging issues to deal with before. But I have a very supportive team. So I’m looking forward to it.”