Getting Personal is an email Q&A with a local personality. Here, Melissa Merli chats with Erika N.L. Harold, Urbana native and former Miss America who was a candidate for the 13th District seat in the U.S. House this year. In the Sept. 30 newspaper, we'll have a chat with Lisa Meid Hamelberg, creative director at Surface51 and 2012 ACE award recipient.
What time do you typically get up? What do you do the first hour of the morning?
I typically wake up around 7:30, drink a cup of coffee, answer emails, read various news articles online and review my notes for any court hearings I may have that morning.
What did you have for lunch today? Where? With whom?
Today I had grilled fish tacos at Shaw's Crab House with a law school student who is interviewing for a summer associate position at the law firm at which I work.
Best high school memory?
Whether it was singing in the concert choir under the direction of Willie T. Summerville or performing in "The Wizard of Oz" under the direction of Greg Chew, participating in Urbana High School's performing arts programs was the highlight of my high school experience.
Tell me about your favorite pair of shoes.
I performed the aria "Habanera," from the opera "Carmen," during the talent portion of the Miss America pageant. To complement my red velvet dress, I wore a pair of black Stuart Weitzman stilettos. These black stilettos were dramatic and glamorous and assisted me in transforming into the title character Carmen — one of opera's ultimate divas. Although I no longer wear these shoes, I have saved them as a reminder of one of the most exhilarating performances of my life.
What does a perfect Sunday afternoon include?
A perfect Sunday afternoon is playing at the park with my incredibly observant 3-year-old niece, Gabrielle, and answering her many questions — "Why do leaves fall from trees?" "Why is that little boy crying?" and "Who was messy and left trash on the ground?" I could not have fathomed how much I would adore my little niece and how much I would love being her Auntie Erika.
Was there one book you read as a child that you still cherish? Own? Read?
Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House on the Prairie," chronicling the adventures of Laura's pioneer family, remains one of my most cherished childhood books. When we were children, my sisters and I loved to dress up in costumes and pretend that we were pioneers like the Ingalls family. We were delighted when my mother handmade each of us a calico bonnet to complete our pioneer ensembles. While I no longer have that bonnet, the book's lessons of braving uncharted territories and relying upon your family for support still inspire me.
Where on Earth are you dying to go? Why?
Salzburg, Austria. One of my favorite movies, "The Sound of Music," was filmed in Salzburg, and I would love to visit the locations where those iconic scenes were filmed. I doubt that anyone would want to travel with me, however, because I most certainly would sing songs from the movie at each location.
Tell me about your favorite pet.
My family has two fiercely loyal Chihuahuas. Although they are small in stature, Jack and Shia bravely sit at the window each day, ferociously barking at every squirrel, car or cat that passes by the house. Then, at the end of their long days protecting the family home, they like to snuggle on the lap of whichever family member is willing to sit with them the longest.
Have you discovered that you are becoming like one of your parents? Which one and how?
I find that the older I get, the more I grow to look like my mother. People will often stop me and say, "You must be Donna Tanner's daughter; you look exactly like her." This pleases me, as we have affectionately nicknamed my mother "the ageless wonder," and I am hoping to age as well as she has.
What would you order for your last meal?
My grandmother Louise Tanner's baked macaroni and cheese, my father Bob Harold's specially seasoned cheeseburgers, a pumpkin spice latte and red velvet cupcakes.
What can you not live without?
I cannot live without my Bible. Whether it is the wisdom of the Proverbs, the encouragement of the Psalms or the exhortation of Hebrews, my Bible has been a timeless guidebook.
Who do you have on your iPod?
I have an eclectic collection of artists on my iPod, ranging from Beethoven to Gospel music artist Anthony Evans to Justin Bieber.
What's the happiest memory of your life?
My happiest memories are the now too rare weekends when all of my siblings and I return to my parents' house and stay up late into the evening, reminiscing about favorite childhood memories, watching old family videos — and being reminded of the blessing it was to have grown up in a house full of love and laughter.
If you could host a dinner party with any three living people in the world, whom would you invite?
Condoleezza Rice, Tim Tebow and acclaimed opera singer Denyce Graves.
What's the best advice you've ever been given?
The late Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, often spoke of the importance of serving "the least, the last and the lost" — those who have been relegated to the margins of society, those whose lives are plagued by suffering and those who have lost hope. I had the privilege of serving on Prison Fellowship's board of directors with Mr. Colson and try to take his words to heart. I have found that it is in reaching out to those who are suffering — whether it be an inmate in prison, a child who is being bullied or someone simply in need of encouragement — that I have found the greatest fulfillment and have grown the most as a person.
What's your best piece of advice?
Stand up for what you believe is right, even if you stand alone.
What was your first job and how much did you make an hour?
My first job was working as an intern at WCIA-Channel 3 News for approximately $5.15 an hour. I had the privilege of learning from some of Champaign-Urbana's finest reporters and news directors including Dave Shaul, Dick Adams and Jennifer Roscoe and always will consider myself a part of the WCIA family.
What was a pivotal decision in your career and how did you arrive at that decision?
Deciding not to pursue a professional singing career was one of the most pivotal decisions I have made. During my senior year of high school, I strongly considered applying to college vocal performance programs in order to pursue a career as a classical singer. I ended up entering the University of Illinois' College of Liberal Arts and Sciences as a freshman but gave myself one year to decide whether to transfer to the School of Music. I told myself that at the end of that year, I would make a final decision and would not look back. During that year of decision, I often visited Smith Music Hall, attended student recitals and tried to discern whether I should transfer. At the end of that year, I decided against transferring, determining that music would remain a passion but would not become my profession.
Do you have a bad habit? What is it?
Excessive coffee consumption. When I was studying for the bar exam, I drank almost eight cups of coffee every day. I have made considerable progress in reducing my consumption and now drink about four cups a day. But every time another scientific study is released, touting coffee's health benefits, I feel a little less motivated to reduce my consumption and decide that perhaps my coffee vice is in fact a virtue.
How do you handle a stressful situation?
I pray. For me, prayer is both an act of humility, acknowledging my own limitations and weaknesses, and an act of faith, beseeching God to intervene in a situation with his mercy and grace.