As of this moment, Samantha Russo is the top contender for Miss America 2014. She's also the only contender because, as it turns out, New Hampshire is First in the Nation when it comes to Primary politics AND state qualifying pageants.
Russo, 22, of Nashua, was crowned Miss New Hampshire on April 29.
She said she entered the realm of pageantry about a year ago at the suggestion of a college professor from Emerson College, her alma mater, who is active with the Miss America Pageant system in Boston. After placing in the top five in four regional pageants, she won the title of Miss Souhegan, which qualified her for Miss New Hampshire.
Taking advantage of Miss America's emphasis on scholarship winnings seemed like a practical approach to paying off college debt.
"I did have preconceived ideas of what pageants were all about. I went into it scared out of my mind. I thought it would be awkward backstage, with people cutting up each other's dresses, but I can honestly say after spending a whole week together, the other contestants are 27 of my best friends," Russo said.
Russo was a favorite early on, winning the Thursday night talent competition and the Friday lifestyle and fitness competition.
Talent accounts for 35 percent of the scoring, and in this category Russo found her comfort zone singing, "Don't Rain on My Parade," a song she first heard while watching the TV program, "Glee."
Only a little coincidental, since Russo bears a tangible resemblance to lead "Glee" actress Lea Michele.
"Yes, I've been told that before," she says, admitting to being a bit of a "Gleek" (geeky over "Glee") when the show first aired.
But Russo's passion for singing and theater predates the TV show – she has always dreamed of being center stage.
"Ever since I was young I wanted to be an actress – I did theater at Bicentennial and then at Elm Street Middle School. I never had big role, but I loved singing and dancing and being goofy and kooky. Then I moved into community theater with the Peacock Players, and got some solos and bigger roles. That's when i said, 'This is what I'm meant to do.' Unfortunately, my parents said that, being the first person in our family to go to college, I couldn't go for musical theater," says Russo.
She became a broadcast journalism major at Emerson, a good call in hindsight, says Russo, as she quickly discovered that being on TV was just as good as being on Broadway. She's interned for WMUR and now works in the marketing department for the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. She also waits tables part-time at The Seedling Cafe in Nashua.
"Emerson has a great broadcast journalism program, and at first I wanted to go into entertainment broadcasting, and interview celebrities. But I found out quickly that's what every girl wanted to do, and there really aren't a lot of opportunities to break into that. I saw a door open for me in the sports department, which was a great fit – I've always been a New England girl, loved the hometown teams. I fell in love with sports broadcasting," Russo said.
During her years at Emerson, Russo got to travel to Florida for baseball season spring training, and covered the Boston Marathon from the finish line, for a routine freshman class assignment, something that gave her pause following the April 15 marathon bombing.
"That was one of my first thoughts after hearing about the bombing. Freshman year one of our assignments for the journalism program is to go to the finish line so we can write about a big sporting event, and so when I heard what happened, I immediately thought about my fellow Emerson classmates, wondering how many of them were there. Emerson is on Boylston Street, so yeah, that whole thing hit so close to home for me," Russo said.
Her topical platform as Miss New Hampshire is tobacco awareness and education, inspired by people in her life who she says are addicted to tobacco, including friends and family members.
"I've seen people's lives turned upside-down due to their addiction, which is why I chose 'Kicking Butts' as my platform. I want to focus on educating kids and letting them know it's an awful product that will control your life, so don't even start," Russo said.
Days have past since the big night, and it's all still sinking in, Russo said. Although she and her mom were both truly shocked at the outcome, her father never had a doubt.
"My mom and I are similar in that we just went into it to see what would happen, maybe get some scholarship money. But my father was adamant that I was going to win. He's from Colombia and is religious and superstitious," she says, explaining that he carries a key chain with a replica of a church on it where people in Colombia go to pray for miracles. It fell off his key chain three times on Saturday – something that's never happened before.
"So he was convinced that since I won the first two nights, based on lucky No. 3, I was going to win, no doubt in his mind," Russo said.
The 2014 Miss America pageant should be a showstopper – the pageant is returning to its birthplace of Atlantic City, NJ, after several years in Vegas.
Russo said her family is still figuring out the logistics of getting there for the September pageant. Between now and then, she has lots of personal appearances scheduled representing as Miss New Hampshire, and needs to prepare herself for a more competitive field of beauty contestants.
"I'm just going to enjoy the ride and have a good time, I'm never going to go to Miss America again, so I need to enjoy it while I have the opportunity," Russo said.
In her short pageant contestant career, Russo said she's learned a few things.
"Especially in my case, since I was a relative newcomer, I learned that they're not always looking for that polished girl who says the exact right thing, or who is the most fit or talented. I think they just are looking for someone who is real and relatable and has room to grow. I think that's what the judges saw in me, someone who was just comfortable with herself, and not trying to be a 'Pageant Patty,' as they say," Russo said.
"I still can't quite believe it's real, but I'm ready," she said.