Wapato native and Miss Washington prepared for big event

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By Adriana Janovich
Payallup, Washington (AP)1-08

Miss Washington 2007 Elyse Umemoto with Gaard Swanson & Michelle Millman, Master & Mistress of Ceremonies.

photo by Henry Schulz

Elyse Umemoto sparkles.

Up there, under the lights, in a beaded, coffee-colored gown, she flashes a megawatt smile, giving supporters another glimpse of what the judges will see.

She looks radiant on the runway. Confidant. Poised. Prepared. She’s been readying six months for this send-off.

The reigning Miss Washington, Umemoto left for Las Vegas, where she competed Jan. 26 at the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino for the title of Miss America. She did not win, Miss Michigan was eventually crowned Miss America. but Umemoto may have made pageant history in a number of other categories.

Umemoto could have been the first Miss Washington to become Miss America. She also could have been the first American Indian to wear the crown. And the first Hispanic. As well as the second Asian.

The 23-year-old, whose pageant platform was Embracing Diversity, Empowering Women, jokingly refers to herself as a quad. Her ethnicity is exactly one-quarter American Indian – she’s an enrolled Yakama – as well as German, Hispanic and Japanese.

“One of the messages I want to share as Miss Washington is it doesn’t matter the color of your skin,” says Umemoto, a Wapato native who now lives in Tacoma. “If it did, I’d be four different colors. I come from four very different backgrounds.”

Her message of acceptance doesn’t stop there. It encompasses socio-economic, gender and other diversity issues as well.

“It doesn’t matter if you have a lot of money, or if you have none at all,” she says, using herself as an example. “I come from humble beginnings. And it certainly doesn’t matter where you grew up. It could be on an Indian reservation, like I did. With the right mindset and positive role models, you can accomplish anything – even Miss America. And I think I’m living proof of that.”

The 2001 Wapato High School graduate was new to the pageant world. But insiders say she has what it takes.

“She is resilient, thoughtful, caring, talented, outgoing,” says Peggy Miller, executive director of the Miss Washington Scholarship Organization. “She really represents America – the melting pot, if you will – with her four nationalities. She can relate to everyone. It doesn’t matter what color your skin, she is able to connect with you. And when she’s with you, it’s like you’re the only person she’s thinking of.”

She’s also, Miller says, “a very strong competitor.”

History’s was at stake. So are thousands of scholarship dollars. The Miss America Organization says it is the world’s largest provider of scholarship assistance for young women. The national organization and its state and local affiliates give more than $45 million a year. With the Miss America crown comes $50,000 – and a yearlong speaking tour.

“Elyse has a really solid chance,” says Fianna Dickson, Miss Washington 2003 and the chairwoman of the “On the Runway to Miss America” fashion show and brunch Sunday. About 130 well-wishers attended the event at Puyallup’s Liberty Theater, where Umemoto modeled her pageant wardrobe in one of her last public appearances before leaving for Las Vegas.

“She’s fresh. She’s funny. Her sense of humor, it just kind of takes you aback. She walks into a room and lights it up, but also has intelligent things to say and makes you laugh at the same time. In high school, Umemoto was a cheerleader, tennis and soccer player, and member of the Wapato Indian Club.

But participating in a pageant didn’t occur to her until a friend suggested the idea during Umemoto’s senior year at Pacific Lutheran University. Umemoto participated in – and won – her first pageant nearly two years ago. In March 2006 she was crowned Miss Pierce County. That same year, she was first runner-up to Miss Washington.

Last year, she won Miss Seattle and Miss Washington. She has spent the last six months promoting her platform and preparing for Miss America.

“I’m out-of-my-mind excited,” Umemoto says. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You get one shot and then you’re done.”

Preparations included practicing her interview skills and polishing her etiquette, shopping for her Miss America wardrobe and making public appearances, such as serving as the official tree-lighter at a Tree Lighting Ceremony at Yakama Legends Casino in Toppenish and attending a masquerade ball, hosted by Soroptimist International of Yakima, to raise funds for the Yakima YWCA Family Crisis Center.

She’s also been working out with a trainer, doing cardio exercises five to six times a week and strength training two to three times a week.

It hasn’t all been work, though. Umemoto recently got to go on a Caribbean cruise with other Miss America contestants and film a Miss America reality series for TLC. The Miss America Live! finale will also be broadcast on the cable channel.

Friends and family who couldn't go to the pageant watched from home. Some hosted viewing parties. About two dozen others traveled to Vegas for the preliminary rounds as well as the main event. Among them were Miss Washington’s mother, Luana Lumley, and three sisters, 17-year-old Lauren Lame Bull, 14-year-old Cheyne Lame Bull, and 10-year-old Shelian Lame Bull, all of Wapato.

Her father, 47-year-old Gary Umemoto of Mercer Island, was also there, just as he was when Miss Washington forgot to bring her crown, sash and cosmetics to the Liberty Theater in Puyallup.

Her dad stopped by her apartment on the way to the fashion show, delivering the accouterments to his daughter with time to spare. The idea he could be the father of Miss America was still sinking in.

“I hope I don’t burst into tears the first time I see her on the (Miss America) stage, he said.

Like the rest of her family who attended the send-off, he watched as a crush of fans waited to pose with Miss Washington or get her autograph on an 8-by-10, black-and-white, glossy image of Umemoto holding her crown and smiling. She signed countless images of herself: Shine on!