TARPON SPRINGS — Sometimes, life isn't as beautiful as a pageant contestant.
That was a lesson Eleana Frangedis, Miss Teen America 2012, had to learn.
Eleana, 17, remembers being bullied in elementary school. Girls she thought were her friends teased her enough to leave her crying at her mother's feet at home.
"They would just be really mean and would isolate and alienate me in any way possible," said the Tarpon Springs resident. "They would do things like make me the only person sitting on one side of the bench during lunch.
"We would always have a good time at my birthday parties," she added, "but once we were at school, it was a totally different story."
Even today, she said, those girls behave the same way. She learned that if someone makes you feel "like dirt under their shoes," you shouldn't let them see you angry or sad over it.
"It molded me into the person that I am today," Eleana said of those early experiences. "When I see other kids getting bullied ... I can relate to them on a personal level."
It's no surprise, then, that Eleana has adopted, as her Miss Teen America platform, talking with students about ways to cope with bullying and peer pressure.
The first Greek-American to win the national title, Eleana was crowned in mid April during the Miss Teen America pageant, held in Tennessee.
She first became interested in competing in pageants during a family vacation to the Bahamas in 2009. The Miss Universe pageant was under way there, and Eleana decided she wanted to be a role model like those contestants.
Without Eleana's knowledge, her mother, Emilia Giannakopoulos, called the Miss Teen America office last October and asked about her daughter entering. She learned that in order to qualify for the national pageant, teens must be crowned at the state level. However, Florida had no state pageant, so the title of Miss Florida Teen could only be won through an application process.
Miss Teen America's executive director, Nikki Clark, said Eleana applied and she won the state title. That gave her the opportunity to compete in the national pageant in April, where contestants were judged on fitness, fashion and how good they looked on camera.
Eleana cried when her name was called out as the winner. She received plaques for winning most photogenic and most community appearances. She also won a scholarship, though her mom, Emilia, declined to give its value.
"A lot of times people believe that when you win a title, you get all of these prizes," Clark said, "but what Eleana has done is that she makes opportunities and she does community service events. She is doing a very good job."
Because she is the first Greek-American to win the title, media outlets in Greece have been eager to interview her. Eleana and her family recently left for Greece to make appearances there.
With one crown to her credit, Eleana said she is interested in entering the Miss America pageant if it doesn't interfere with college courses (she hopes to attend the University of Florida).
She just completed her junior year at Countryside High in Clearwater and is considering taking her senior year courses through the Florida Virtual School so she can continue to make appearances and promote her anti-bullying platform, which is what matters most to her.
"Not a lot of girls have a good heart. They just go to win the title," she said. "They mostly care about the photo shoot and what contacts they can make, not what impacts they can make."
Emilia said she is proud of her daughter and the way she is using her visibility.
"She'll call me and say, 'Mom, I helped someone today,' " she said.
Diedra Rodriguez can be reached at (727) 445-4154 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.