Athletic and feminine: Miss California is both

More than 90 women competed for the title of Miss California on Nov. 23 at the Palm Springs Riviera Resort & Spa. Carrie Prejean, Miss La Jolla, took top honors from the judges and her peers, walking away with the state title, as well as being named Miss Congeniality.

The 21-year-old San Diego native, who worked for a La Jolla modeling agency and was thus eligible to represent the Jewel, received a prize package that included a $4,000 diamond necklace, an official sash and crown, a modeling contract, beauty and fitness products, a complete wardrobe and more.

Some of Prejean’s past titles include Miss Greater San Diego Teen in 2004, Miss Greater San Diego in 2007 and first runner up for Miss California in 2008. She is the only contestant in 26 years to win both the teen and adult titles.

Prejean will begin working with a team of professionals to prepare for the Miss USA pageant, which is set for April 19 at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in Las Vegas. Should she win the national crown, Prejean will take her place against beauties from around the world in the 2009 Miss Universe pageant.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I am a senior at San Diego Christian College and I’m studying to be a teacher. After graduation, I plan on getting my master’s in special education. I currently work as a model and recently became a campaign model for Naughty Monkey shoes. This is my third season as a member of the San Diego Padres Pod Squad.

How did you get your start participating in pageants?

I’m not used to being this “pageant girl” because I’ve been so athletic all my life. I played basketball all four years at Vista High School, was captain of the varsity team and was offered a college scholarship for basketball. When I was 16, a basketball friend of mine invited me to compete in a beauty pageant. I’m big on trying something new and I’m very competitive, so I said yes. I came home and said, “Mom, Dad, I’m going to be in a beauty pageant” and they laughed. When the Miss Teen Vista didn’t want to go on to the next level of competition, I volunteered.

Why did you want to be Miss California?

The biggest reason I wanted to be Miss California was to have an impact on young women and let them know that anything is possible. With the title comes responsibility - it’s not just a crown. It requires you to have time management skills and organization skills and be a role model.

What was the single most difficult thing about participating in the Miss California pageant?

It is a challenge to respond to the two questions posed to you on stage, being comfortable and poised but also letting your opinions be heard. I was very, very shy growing up so I wanted to break that fear. I still get nervous when I have to talk in front people, but I act like it doesn’t bother me.

The two questions I was asked were: How am I a leader and what is one thing that I’m most proud of? I actually said that I’m most proud that I’m a volunteer for the Special Olympics organization. One of my many role models is Maria Shriver.

How did you react when you learned you had won?

I was standing there with the other girl and praying that my name wasn’t going to be called because the name they call is the first runner-up. When I realized I had won, I immediately smiled really big and couldn’t believe it.

How do you plan to use this achievement?

I want to let girls know that it is OK to be feminine as well a tomboy. I want to break the stereotype that female athletes aren’t attractive. Other issues I want to raise awareness about are the Special Olympics, self-esteem issues and eating disorders among young women, and breast and ovarian cancer research.

What will the next year hold for you?

The next few months will be busy preparing for Miss USA. I’m going to be on a tight nutrition plan and exercise plan. As Miss California, I will be attending charity events, fundraisers, movie premieres and red carpet events.

Will you have to give anything up to serve as Miss California?

I’m going to try to stay in school for as long as I can. But I want to live this next year to the fullest and that may mean taking a semester off.

What advice would you give to young girls who want to start entering pageants?

Do it because you want to do it; don’t do it because someone else told you to do it. Take it seriously because it is a job and a responsibility.

How has winning the title changed you?

There are days I wake up and have self doubt, but then I think, “I’m Miss California and there’s a reason for that.” While the title adds confidence, it really hasn’t changed me as a person, but it’s given me opportunities I may never have had.