Miss Illinois pressing on with Miss America preparations

Miss Illinois pressing on with Miss America preparations

The Miss America contest is changing, and that's for the better, Miss Illinois Grace Khachaturian told two women at a Champaign Panera Bread on a mid-August Friday after a meeting with state Sen. Chapin Rose.

The swimsuit contest is gone. Contestants are now called "candidates." And it's now a "competition" rather than a pageant.

Still, the role of Miss Illinois and the preparations for Miss America include a somewhat disparate and all-consuming mix of fashion, fitness, talent, policy and polish. All of that was covered in a matter of hours last Friday, when Khachaturian spent the day preparing for the Sept. 9 contest.

She nearly didn't even enter. After losing her first local competition to qualify for the state contest, Khachaturian nearly ended her days on the pageant circuit.

"I was thinking, 'Maybe this isn't for me anymore. Maybe I'm grown out of this.' I was encouraged to try one more, and I gave myself one more shot, and it happened to work. I went to state kind of expecting nothing."

As it turned out, of course, Khachaturian won the whole thing, the third time she's prevailed in such a competition, following wins in the Illinois teen and pre-teen contests.

And now, she's all in, and she spends her days working on criteria that will help her next month in Atlantic City, N.J.

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It's just past 8 a.m. on a Friday three weeks before the competition, and Miss Illinois is doing pirouettes by herself in a room in the Mettler Center in Champaign for the final stage of her workout.

This just happens to be Khachaturian's hometown, but she'd be doing the same if she were in any other town across Illinois. After getting in at 2 a.m. the night before, she cut this workout short, an hour of interval running on the treadmill, lifting weights and practicing her dance routine, a lyrical dance to Josh Groban's "You Raise Me Up" that won her the Miss Illinois title and a chance to compete at the Miss America competition.

After her workout, she had a small meal, one of six she'd have during the day as a part of a strict diet regimen, which includes egg whites, lean ground turkey, fish, asparagus and, every once in a while, a tomato basil rice cake for a treat. Most of those meals are packed in a cooler that she carries in her car.

"I have three cakes waiting for me for (after the pageant)," she said with a laugh to a group of men later in the day.

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Walking around Panera at midday, Sen. Rose was clearly the politician in the room.

If the longtime state legislator didn't know a majority of the people in the restaurant when he walked in, he certainly did when he left.

After saying hello to several groups, he sat down with Khachaturian at a corner table.

"My dream is to have a curriculum implemented across the nation — but we'll start a little bit at a time — of mental health in our health units when kids go to P.E. class and health class," Khachaturian told Rose after pulling out a pen and notebook.

This is Khachaturian's chosen Social Impact Initiative, the one defined topic that each Miss America contestant individually chooses and focuses on.

She took notes as Rose gave his thoughts about mental health in Illinois and how the "budget debacle," as he called it, has made it difficult to move forward with new policy. Now that it's solved, though, he sees new opportunity.

After a half-hour conversation, Rose introduced her to three separate groups of people on his way to his car.

At her next stop, she'll need no introduction.

It had been a while since Khachaturian entered Centennial High School, but as soon as she walked through the doors, it was clear that she was at the forefront of plenty of minds.

She was greeted with hugs and congratulations throughout the building before making her way to meet with former school social worker and current substitute teacher Pam Geiger to talk about mental health in schools.

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Khachaturian files through hundreds of dresses and picks out a half-dozen or so.

Despite the strict diet, the workout regimen and the makeup tutorial she recently took, physical appearance is no longer a defined criteria of the competition. Contestants, though, are supposed to pick out outfits that "make them feel confident, expresses their personal style, and shows how they hope to advance the role of Miss America."

The red dress with the long, dangling sleeves, Khachaturian said, makes her feel like Shania Twain.

After cycling through the rest of the dresses, she heads to the Virginia Theatre, so she can feel the bright lights on her face while she's peppered with questions on topics ranging from kneeling for the national anthem to Donald Trump classics like the border wall and calling the media the enemy of the people.

As she stares ahead into the near-empty theater, she's able to answer most of the questions without stutter or pause.

Over the next few weeks, she'll take advisement and help from a trainer, a nutritionist, an image consultant, a hair stylist, a makeup stylist, a travel companion, a boss and a board.

The Miss America pageant is less superficial now, but that doesn't mean less intensive or all-encompassing.

"I'm really focused on keeping a sense of normality through this process, reminding myself that this isn't the only thing I'm supposed to do in my life. There's life after Miss America, and to keep that perspective."

But for now, she'll deal with the short nights of sleep, the long workouts, the tiny meals and the constant movement from place to place.

"My energy is just based off of adrenaline and excitement for my day," she said. "I'm running off of self-motivation, and I believe that there's a difference to be made and I'm ready to do it. I have the rest of my life to sleep."

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