New Miss Florida Laura McKeeman hopes to blaze trails for women in sports broadcast

She had never seen a beauty pageant until she was in one, never known much about sports until she became a broadcaster. She's the smiling blond you see on Fox Sports reporting from Rays games. Though she's super svelte, a ballerina, she admits to occasionally bingeing on big burgers.

Meet Miss Florida: This month, Laura McKeeman was crowned at the Mahaffey Theater. The 23-year-old Miss Pinellas County beat 42 other women. In January, she will fly to Las Vegas to compete for the Miss America title.

We caught up with her by phone from her home in St. Pete Beach while an official from the Miss Florida pageant listened in. Laura talked about winning the pageant, about her favorite Rays players, and why her looks didn't help her land her first broadcasting job. Really.

These are her words, edited for chronology and space, as told to Times staff writer Lane DeGregory.

When I was little I lived in the Panhandle, and I was always scooping fish out of the gulf. I wanted to be a marine biologist all through elementary school.

In middle school, we moved to Atlanta, and I thought I'd be a weather broadcaster. I was fascinated by geography and meteorology. I would try to practice, but I could never really get that whole pointing at the right place on the map. I also got into music then, piano, violin and dulcimer. For a while, I played percussion in a jazz band. And I started taking ballet.

We moved to Florida for high school. I went to Celebration, in Orlando, and by then it was all about dance. I did every kind, but I was too lanky for hip-hop, always best at ballet. I went to D.C. and China to study, danced with the Orlando Ballet.

After high school, I had offers to join the Nashville and Sarasota ballets. That's what I thought I would do. But at the last possible date I changed my mind and called UF and accepted their admission.

That first week in Gainesville, I went to the campus radio station and said I wanted to do news. They didn't have any openings in news. But they had one in sports. I always liked sports. But I didn't know that much about them. My two younger brothers were always watching sports, and we lived in Atlanta, so the Braves were a big part of my growing up. I played soccer. Once. In fifth grade. It was a coed team and my brother told me if I ever tried to play on his team again he would never talk to me.

I took the sports show just so I could work on the radio. My boss told me he thought I'd last two weeks. So I started looking up all kinds of things on the Internet, printing out piles of paper to stack around the station. I had a pile for soccer, one for lacrosse. I wanted to be ready.

For three years, I did the morning drive show four days a week. I got up at 4 a.m., so I could never go to bars or parties. My friends told me I wasn't having a college life. But I was getting experience.

Our show was called Cheap Seats. People called in and you had to be ready to react to whatever they asked. I was the host sometimes. Sometimes I was the second-seat commentator. My co-hosts varied, and were always men.

One day, in my junior year, I had been up late studying for a big American history test, so I hadn't done any preparation for the show. We were talking about Tim Tebow, would he be a dual-threat quarterback in the NFL? And someone from Fox was driving through Gainesville and heard me and called the radio station. He had never seen me. He just liked my voice, I guess, and what I was saying. He offered me a job, and I worked full time for Fox all through my senior year, doing radio and writing for their Web page. That call certainly had nothing to do with how I look.

Getting on TV? Okay, maybe that made a difference. But I think initially my looks hurt my credibility. I had to chip away at all those walls, people thinking I only got hired because of my face. I want to be taken seriously by all the sportswriters who have dedicated their entire careers to becoming experts. Most of them, once they see I know what I'm talking about, they're willing to work with me and help me. Sexism happens, of course, but not to the point that it's affected me.

• • •

I entered my first pageant unintentionally, in 2010. I was 20, a junior in college, and some friends signed me up for the Miss University of Florida pageant. I didn't want to do it. I had never really seen a beauty pageant, but I had all these stereotypes of what they were. But they told me about the community service, and about the scholarship money, so I thought okay. And I won first runnerup, $1,000.

It turned out all those things I thought about pageants were wrong. It's not like Toddlers in Tiaras. The Miss America system is the largest scholarship provider for young women in the country.

The next year I won Miss Suncoast. I got to dance in that one, but I hadn't been keeping up my ballet much since high school, and I had never done a solo. When I slipped on stage, I thought I'd have to go home.

This was only my third year competing, so I went into the (Miss Florida) pageant thinking I didn't have a chance. I just entered, really, to have the opportunity to meet all those amazing young women.

When they called my name, I couldn't believe it. I kept looking around: Who me? I won $16,000, an incredible amount of money. I was able to pay my parents back for some of my college and still have enough to go to graduate school.

The next day, I went with my parents to Parkshore Grill to celebrate. They have these big, gooey, three-cheese burgers I love. I guess that's the last burger I'll have until January.

• • •

As Miss Florida, I'm going to go to nursing homes. I have this program, "A Royal Day," where I bring a crown and a tiara and make someone king and queen for a day. I try to target people who don't get many visitors, so they'll have someone to talk to. It's like listening to a real history while they relive their lives.

I made a dear friend named Miss Maggie. She's 76. She likes to tell me how her husband used to have all these chickens. When he died, she tried to feed the chickens but they attacked her — and invaded her house. She couldn't get those chickens to leave her alone so she sold the house, chickens and all, and moved into the nursing home.

This fall, I will be traveling around the state as Miss Florida, promoting Florida's water supply for the Everglades Foundation. And I'll be working on ballet, my pointe piece. I'm trying to figure out what to do for Miss America.

• • •

When I started covering college football recruiting, providing written content for Scout.com, there were no women doing that. So many people in recruitment were players themselves, so they have all these connections. But I worked at it and now I cover college recruiting for basketball and baseball too.

Baseball has always been my favorite sport, so it's been amazing getting to broadcast the Rays. I did a few games last year, but this year I'm doing most of the home games. My favorite players? Elliot Johnson and Sam Fuld. He's so smart, he's just obsessed with statistical methods of the game. It will be so great when they get him back on the field.

I'm really pretty open about my career. I've got such a long way to go with sports, to really master that, I don't know if that's what I want to do forever. I want to be well-rounded, do some more radio, some writing, and stay in TV and become more respected as an analyst.

Women I admire? I'd have to say Holly Rowe. She does sideline college football for ESPN. She has a husband and children as well as her career and she's able to juggle both. That's really important to me, to have a family.

I'd like to get into entertainment, maybe some day, or cover food or travel. What I really want is to tell people's stories. Not just athletes. Everyone has a story.

• • •

I used to take offense when people compared me to Erin Andrews. I wanted to be my own person. But now I realize she blazed the trail for me. She was one of the first very attractive women to do sports. And she did the research and proved herself.

I hope to blaze a trail for other young women. My advice? Just trust yourself. I struggled with confidence for so long, I only recently tapped into that.

If you believe in yourself, you will be so surprised at what you can do.

New Miss Florida Laura McKeeman hopes to blaze trails for women in sports broadcast 07/20/12 [Last modified: Friday, July 20, 2012 5:38pm]

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