Cary native Kirstin Elrod shines in her new
role as Miss North Carolina 2004, gearing up to compete for Miss
America this Fall.
By Christa Gala
When Kirstin (Kear-stin) Elrod competed in her
first pageant just four years ago for the Miss Garner title, she saw
nothing wrong with wearing one of her high school prom dresses for
the evening gown competition. And while it’s easy to imagine the
other contestants snickering behind well-manicured hands, the
laughing stopped when Elrod was announced first runner-up.
She’s come a long way since then.
On June 26th, up against 29 promising young women from
across the state, Elrod was crowned Miss North Carolina 2004 at
Memorial Auditorium. She leaves September 1st to
represent the state at the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City,
New Jersey, televised nationwide on September 18th.
Although stunningly beautiful, Kirstin Elrod
just doesn’t fit the stereotype of a pageant contestant—a
stereotype, she says, she is determined to dispel. In fact, Elrod is
especially grounded. She’s studied foreign languages for ten years;
participated at Cary High School in the Key Club and S.A.D.D.
(Students Against Drunk Driving); and for years was a dedicated
member of the choir at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
“I didn’t grow up
doing pageants,” says Elrod. “I just thought it was a world away
from me, so far removed. It wasn’t even like I wanted to be Miss
America because it just didn’t enter my mind as a possibility. I
didn’t think I was capable of it.”
Elrod’s induction into
the pageant scene was somewhat of a fluke. Graduating from Cary High
School in 1999, she was accepted into the North Carolina School of
the Arts in Winston-Salem to study opera. Back home in Cary after
her first year in college, Elrod realized she needed more help
funding her education.
“The summer after my freshman year,
I went to a search engine and typed in ‘college scholarships’ and it
pulled up the Miss America organization, which is the number one
scholarship provider in the world for young women,” says Elrod. In
fact, last year alone, the organization awarded $45 million in
college assistance across the nation. But Elrod didn’t
know that at the time. She simply scrolled down the screen and
clicked on “North Carolina,” then sent an email indicating her
interest. Several months passed. Elrod had forgotten the email
completely until one day she received a phone call regarding
directions to rehearsals for the Miss Garner pageant.
“I sort of thought,
‘What have I gotten myself into?’ I just wanted information, but I
guess they assumed I wanted to enter,” says Elrod. (Since Cary
doesn’t have a pageant, eligible contestants for the Miss Garner
competition can live anywhere in Wake County.)
Although it’s hard to believe now,
that first pageant gave Kirstin a badly-needed dose of confidence
and self esteem. Her first year at the School of the Arts, packed
with so many talented students, had taken her ego for a rough ride.
“I just wasn’t special
there,” Elrod says. “I wasn’t an underachiever, but by no means was
I the star of anything. And so it was really kind of a time where I
didn’t have much self-confidence, and I just didn’t believe in
myself. I really was very down on myself. So the fact that I got
such positive feedback from this (pageant) showed me that maybe I
was talented, maybe I did have something to offer.”
A committee of
dedicated individuals is generally responsible for organizing
pageants. The committee for the Miss Garner pageant, says Elrod, was
extremely supportive, urging her to continue competing, mentioning
an upcoming Miss Raleigh competition.
But a conversation
with the mother of a former Miss North Carolina convinced Elrod to
step back and think about things. The woman advised Elrod not to
compete in the Miss Raleigh competition because she was afraid Elrod
would win, and then would go on to compete for Miss North Carolina.
The woman didn’t want Elrod to compete for that title until she was
more experienced and truly ready to win it. Elrod took her advice.
“I went to other
preliminary pageants just to see what it takes to be a winner,” she
says. Sitting in the audience, Kirstin would try to pick the winner
herself. What did it take to graduate from runner-up to winner? She
worked on her community service platform and practiced interviewing,
learning to look people directly in the eye and to avoid filling in
silences with ‘um’ and ‘like.’
“So I spent that year getting
ready, and the next year I went back and won. So I was Miss Garner
in 2002, and I went to the Miss North Carolina pageant (in 2002),
and I was the fourth runner-up.”
Clearly, Elrod was making progress.
Where could she go from here?
A hometown girl
Many Cary residents are probably familiar with
Elrod—or at least her voice. Throughout her childhood, she’s given
performances with certain groups at spots all over Cary, including
Cary Towne Center and Barnes and Noble. The fact that she graduated
in May with a degree in operatic performance from the North Carolina
School of the Arts often still shocks her.
Elrod’s mother, Sharon Farrell,
used to tell people Kirstin would someday grow up to be an opera
singer—namely because as an infant, she cried so hard and loud and,
her mother insists, with rhythm.
“Growing up, even
though she was telling people that, I never believed it,” says
Elrod. “If someone could have sent me a snapshot of my life now,
back then I wouldn’t have believed it. I hated opera; she would play
it in the house, and I couldn’t stand it. I would close my door and
play something else.”
But Kirstin did love to sing. As it
turns out, other people liked to hear her sing too. She started
singing in the church choir at St. Paul’s and by the time she was
seven years old, she was attending a weeklong choral camp sponsored
by the diocese. An anonymous church member paid Kirstin’s way for
five summers, wanting her to have the opportunity that might have
been difficult for her mother to afford as a single parent.
Once in high school,
Elrod decided it was time to turn up the volume regarding her
musical potential. She auditioned and was accepted in the N.C.
Governor’s School for Choral Music.
“I wanted to go to the
Governor’s School with every fiber of my being,” she says. “I had
heard about it, and I was so determined to get in. I just wanted it
more than anything. So I started taking voice lessons to prepare for
After high school, Kirstin chose to
go to the North Carolina School of the Arts, even though her mother
questioned the decision, thinking Kirstin might get more benefit
from a larger university. But Kirstin stood firm.
She chose the school because,
unlike a university, the North Carolina School of the Arts was a
conservatory and it was likely she would receive more personal
attention from teachers, in addition to support and encouragement to
audition, even if it meant taking time off from school.
Conservatories have a vested interest in seeing their students work
in their craft—that’s the ultimate goal.
audition landed her a six-month contract with an acting company in
Pennsylvania, and Elrod took a professional leave of absence from
school. She played an Italian princess at a Renaissance Fair.
“I packed up my car
and drove there all by myself,” Kirstin says. “I felt so independent
and so capable. That experience, those six months, taught me an
incredible amount about myself and did show me what I’m capable of,
in terms of getting myself together and taking this professional job
and doing a great job with it.
“I learned a
tremendous amount about the way I’m perceived by other people, which
isn’t always the way that I think I am,” she continues. “I learned a
valuable lesson about what people would think about me being in
She heard all kinds of
comments. One of her fellow actors remarked that Kirstin didn’t seem
‘stupid’ even though she had competed in pageants. Time and time
again, she became frustrated with the stereotypes and judgments.
Making a decision
Back at school after she finished her acting
contract, Elrod decided she would go back to compete for the title
of Miss North Carolina—but only when she was ready.
“I told myself that
if I ever went back that I would go back to win,” says Elrod. In
2003, she competed and won the title of Miss Carolina Foothills,
which led to her second Miss North Carolina pageant this past June.
Kirstin knew the interviewing and talent portions would likely
determine whether she made the top ten.
“There was incredible
competition. I competed with 29 other young women that were just
wonderful, with amazing talents and credentials,” she says. “I
thought, ‘I can’t hold anything back.’”
During the week of
the pageant, contestants were sequestered from the public while
staying in dorm rooms at Peace College. Each night they were able to
visit with their family members for just thirty minutes, but no cell
phones or other visitation was allowed.
“Everyone was really
incredibly supportive all week,” says Elrod. “My brother isn’t
always supportive of pageants, but during that week he was amazingly
supportive.” He wasn’t the only family member who was a little
dubious of Kirstin’s involvement in pageants.
“My mother, the first
time I did a pageant, she said ‘What are you thinking?’ But since
then, she’s become incredibly supportive, making clothes for me for
Miss North Carolina; I think she’d do anything for me at this
point,” says Elrod.
She says she is
constantly trying to battle the stereotype that pageants are all
about nails, perfect hair and swimsuits.
“People think that
until they actually see one. My father thought that and didn’t
really support me doing pageants, but then he reluctantly came to
Miss North Carolina the first time to see me compete and now he has
a completely different view of it,” says Elrod.
“The one thing that
people think is demeaning more than anything is the swimsuit
competition. But I’ll tell you I’m in the best shape of my life
right now because of the swimsuit competition,” says Elrod, who, to
prepare for this year’s competition, took 2 exercise classes twice a
week and spent 15 additional hours in the gym running, lifting
weights and doing yoga. “I really worked hard.”
Kirstin not only made top ten, but
at the end of the week, she found herself standing on stage with the
top five contestants. One of the women would be crowned Miss North
“This sense of calm
came over me, and I wasn’t nervous at all,” she remembers. “I was
just standing there and very resigned to the fact that it was done,
the decision had been made, and that I was going to hear what it
What happened was that she didn’t
hear her name, which meant she wasn’t fourth runner-up as she’d been
two years ago. Then she didn’t hear her name for third runner-up, or
second or first. She’d won—Miss North Carolina 2004.
What does it mean?
Winning the title of Miss North Carolina means
many things. Elrod received $12,000 in college scholarships for
winning and will also receive $5,000 for competing in the Miss
America pageant, as do all contestants. She stands to win even more
if she places, wins, or achieves special recognition at the national
Kirstin also speaks to
residents all over the state regarding her Miss North Carolina
service platform—counteracting chemical and substance abuse. She
chose the topic largely for two reasons: one, because of her
involvement with the D.A.R.E. program; and two, because she’s known
people who’ve faced the issue.
“I went through the
D.A.R.E. program when I was in school, and I just always loved it. I
personally got a lot out of it,” says Elrod. In college, Kirstin
became frustrated watching other students harm themselves with drugs
“It’s painful to care
about people who don’t care about themselves, and I’ve been in that
situation more than once,” she says. “So I’m really passionate about
talking to people before they encounter that. I also want to talk to
parents because they have the most profound effect on their
children, especially during a child’s formative years.”
She’s already spoken
to both the North Carolina Senate and House of Representatives, in
addition to YMCAs, schools, and boys’ and girls’ clubs throughout
Competing in Miss
America also means Elrod will get to showcase her musical talents on
stage in front of 12,000 people, not to mention a national
television audience. And the journey to winning the title of Miss
North Carolina has taught her about herself.
“When you compete
like this, you just have to get to know yourself and trust
yourself,” Elrod says. “So no matter what comes at you, all you have
to do is look inside yourself for the answer.
“The biggest thing is
you have to believe that you can do it. You just have to know that
you’re capable of it. It’s not that I’m any more special than anyone
else. I say that about winning Miss North Carolina. It doesn’t mean
I’m more intelligent or more talented than anyone else. It just
means I was right for the job. As a young woman, you just have to
know what you’re capable of. There are, I think, vast expanses of
untouched potential in young women. We’re capable of so much.”
After the fact
Kirstin Elrod, her term as Miss North Carolina
2004 just beginning, isn’t giving too much thought about what will
come when she’s finished. “Right now, I’m thinking about right now,”
she says. “I firmly believe that in order to make the most of my
time, I have to live in it.”
She’s not without a
plan, however. Kirstin recently auditioned at the American Musical
and Dramatic Academy, with campuses in both New York and Los
Angeles. She was accepted and offered a scholarship for musical
theater. Elrod hopes one day to pursue a bilingual film career.
“I have a real sense
of urgency about getting into my profession and taking auditions,”
Elrod says. “But I’m by no means a finished product. There’s a lot
of training I want to pursue.”