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Miss (Almost) Florida

Shauna Pender, who competed as Miss St. Petersburg: "The first year I got first runner-up really wasn't that bad. I was so excited to be so close. And I really, truly got beat that year. The girl who won deserved it. After being Miss Florida, she went on and made the top 10 in Miss America.

"The second year, last year, I was shocked. Very shocked. I really thought I had it.

"And this time was the worst. I went numb, really. It's so much worse knowing you can't go back. I can't try again." (Pender this month will be 24, the Miss America age limit.)

Allan Brown, Pender's consultant and "dresser": "We were so disappointed for Shauna. She did such a good job. Her wardrobe was great. You should have seen her in her swimsuit. It was a two-piece raspberry sherbet, sort of like the one Halle Barry wore in the last Bond movie. Beautiful."

Migdoel "Dio" Miranda, Pender's personal trainer: "She never got tired of trying to get better. The workouts, the diets, all the time trying to be on top. Her abs actually got better for this pageant."

John Moskal, a drama coach in Los Angeles and one of five judges for Miss Florida 2003: "After seeing her in swimwear _ she's in great shape _ and evening gown _ oh, she was exquisite in evening gown, everyone ooohed and aaahed when she came out _ I was pretty confident she was it. She was very good in talent, too. She sang her little heart out."

Carole Holsonback, co-director of the Miss St. Petersburg pageant and one of Pender's backers: "She's not, like, the most phenomenal singer. But she was certainly good enough to go to Miss America. Our current Miss America (Miss Illinois Erika Harold) was probably only a 7 on talent."

Miranda, the trainer: "To me, she looked just like Miss America."

Mary Sullivan, executive director and president, Miss Florida Scholarship Pageant: "She was very well-packaged. In terms of her presentation, she was consistent throughout the week. You can often tell when a girl is competing for the first time. There's a difference. Shauna is experienced at this. You could tell."

Holsonback: "The one thing that might have hurt her a little bit was she didn't win the interview for her group, and interview is worth 40 percent of the points overall. The judges asked her higher-level questions, more like questions to see if she could qualify for Miss America than those you normally hear at a state pageant. They were just firing questions at her. They asked her 15 questions in 12 minutes.

"The first question was: "Do you consider yourself a front-runner in this pageant?' Some of the judges knew her history, how many times she'd been to the state pageant, so I think in interviewing her they were pretty tough."

Brown, Pender's dresser: "During (her opening statement), she said if she won Miss Florida, she already had lined it up to be the spokesperson for Special Olympics. That's part of her platform, helping people with special needs, so she was trying to get some speaking engagements ready _ in case. She's not arrogant. Just confident. But the judges never asked her about that."

Holsonback: "They asked, "If we give you the title of Miss Florida and you don't win Miss America, then you get an acting contract or something else in New York, what would you do?' We had prepared Shauna for that during our mock interviews. She said she had already had some good offers and had turned them down so she could compete in the state pageant. She said she was very committed."

Moskal, the judge: "I thought she had a really sharp interview. I can't say anything she should have done differently."

Holsonback: "Another thing that might have hurt her is that she just didn't put on. During the interview, one of the judges asked her, "Are you acting? Or is this the real Shauna?' She didn't want them to think she was a drama queen. So for the rest of the pageant, she decided to just be herself. That might have been a little bit of a risk or a gamble. But she didn't want to sound rehearsed. The other girls, of course, all gave their preplanned dissertations. They had on their pageant voices."

Pender: "I decided I was just going to be really, really real. I was very happy with how I performed, just not with how the judges performed. I don't know any of my scores. I wouldn't want to know."

Moskal: "We don't talk scores between ourselves. But I knew it was close."

Sullivan, the Miss Florida director: "It just came down to the wire, like a horse race. It all comes down to the judges' personal choices. That's it."

Pender: "All week long, every night you're waiting for your name to be called to win swimsuit or make the top 10 or top five. Then all of a sudden you don't want your name called (because that means you came in second). But they do. All I could think of was, "Oh, God. Not again!' "

Holsonback: "The judges were very experienced. Our hope was that they'd know this was Shauna's last chance so they would sequence the girls: Let Shauna win this year, then Ericka (Dunlap, who won) could go on and do it next year. Ericka is only 21. She still has a few years left to compete. We thought they might take that into consideration, see that they had a couple of strong competitors, and give Shauna a shot at it. But they didn't."

Moskal: "My heart just broke for Shauna. It must have been so horrible for her. It must've been such a shock and a disappointment. But she was very gracious. She hugged the winner and stayed intact."

Pender: "I've been in three Miss Floridas with Ericka, and she's never even been in the top 10. I said congratulations to her. Then I just backed off. Afterwards, at the gala, I apologized to her. "I hope I didn't come across as being ungracious,' I told her. "If someone had to beat me, I'm glad it was you.' We hugged. But it was hard for me to blink back the tears."

Holsonback: "It's not that easy to be the first runner-up once. For her to come back two years in a row and meet those expectations and be that consistent, be that good for that long, that's a remarkable achievement. That shows what Shauna is made of."

Pender: "Every girl there knew my story. They all said they understood. People kept telling me how sorry they were, how proud they were of me, regardless. I really appreciated all their kindness. But it made it so much harder for me to hold it all together.

"Everyone kept saying, "God has another path for you.' But it's just so not coinciding with mine."

Andi Bennett, of Camp Care-A-Lot at the Tampa Shriners Hospital: "I got to spend a day with Shauna when she came to volunteer with our children's camp. She's very comfortable with herself, and that drew a lot of the kids to her. One little girl was getting really frustrated with a bead project, putting beads on a peg board, and Shauna just worked and worked with her. She was very patient, very calming, very good at helping the children.

"I was bummed out when she didn't win. I don't know what the competition was like. But being runner-up three years in a row, that's sort of like what happened to Susan Lucci."

Pender: "That night, my roommate made me get out of the room and order Domino's pizza with the other girls. I had been wanting pizza for so long when I couldn't have it. But when it finally came, I couldn't eat it. I wasn't hungry.

"The next day, though, my mom brought me a whole bag of Gummi Worms, which was great. I ate the whole thing. I swear I've already gained back my weight."

Brown, the dresser: "You know, the Miss USA people want her to do their pageant now. She has the look they like: tall, long hair, more like a model. I told her, "You can win $40,000 as Miss USA, and you can keep trying until you're 26.' It has to be her decision. But I'd love to see her do it."

Pender: "I'm pretty much done with pageants now, I think. The Miss USA people jumped on me at the wrong time. You have to pay $1,500 to enter that one, so if someone paid my fee, I might do it. But that's not really my thing.

"I've always wanted to be Miss America. And that didn't happen. So maybe I'm just meant to do something different."

The sources for this article were interviewed separately after the pageant.