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With her tiara, tears

Shauna Pender worked five years to become Miss Florida. Once she got the title, she was able to enjoy it two weeks before an auto accident changed her life.

By JAMIE THOMPSON
Published June 24, 2004

[Times photo: Lara Cerri]
Shauna Pender waves to the crowd at the St. Petersburg Pier on Tuesday. Pender does not hide the scars from the accident that almost killed her. "They're my battle wounds," she says. "I fought for my life, and I won."
[AP file photo]
Two weeks into Pender's reign as Miss Florida, a truck loaded with avocados fell on the car she was in while in Miami for a fundraiser.

ST. PETERSBURG - The beauty queen can't put on her tiara.

She can't apply charcoal liner beneath her eyes, or sweep her long brown hair into a ponytail. She can't sing, can barely talk. Her once flawless figure is covered with bright pink scars.

But she can't think of that now.

This week, Shauna Pender has to be Miss Florida 2003, has to smile and laugh and greet the 43 women competing for her sparkling rhinestone crown in St. Petersburg.

Pender worked five different years for that title.

It came in October, and then it nearly killed her.

On Saturday, Pender will walk on stage and relinquish her crown. She will be happy for the new girl. She will try not to cry.

But she can't help feeling, it's not fair.

* * *

What do you do if you've spent five years working for a dream, and then finally, unexpectedly, you get it? And two weeks into living the dream, a truck carrying avocados tips over on the highway and nearly kills you.

If you're Shauna Pender, here's what you do:

You wake up to the horror of your new life.

You thank God that you're alive.

Then you wonder if you want to live.

You go through all the what ifs, and then you resign yourself to the what is.

You work every day relearning basic tasks like swallowing, talking, writing, applying lipstick.

And then, you muster up the courage to revisit your old life.

You have someone put on your tiara.

And you go greet the girls who are everything you have always been, pretty and energetic and determined. You stand among them, trying not to feel self conscious about your scars.

You try really hard not to cry.

"A short time ago, I was the same as them," Pender says. "My big worries were, Do I have the right earrings on, and is my hair okay? Now, I worry whether I took my medicine, or if I covered my scars right before getting into the shower."

* * *

Pender entered her first pageant when she was a student at Florida State University. She won Miss Tallahassee her freshman year, picked up at least four more crowns, including Miss St. Petersburg, and earned enough money to pay for college, graduating with a theatre degree.

She's a ham. She dreamt of a career on Broadway, starring roles in Hollywood.

But first, she wanted to become Miss Florida.

"I wanted it so badly," Pender said.

Five times, she competed in the pageant.

Three times in a row she won first runnerup.

Three times, she stood on stage with one other girl, hoping her name would not be called first.

Each time it was.

Last year, 2003, was Pender's final attempt. At 24, she was too old to compete again.

She thought it was her year. She had gotten better with each competition, was more confident. She spent months sculpting her abs for a two-piece raspberry sherbet suit.

She won preliminary awards for evening wear and swimsuit. She was thinking about Miss America.

But there she was at the end, standing on stage, and again, her named was called first.

Pender tried to be a good sport, gracefully congratulating winner Ericka Dunlap.

Back at the hotel, she cried in the shower.

She ate a whole bag of Gummi worms.

She packed and headed to New York City.

Pender moved in with her older sister on the Upper East Side, enrolled in acting classes and worked as a cocktail waitress in a billiards club.

One night in September, her sister arrived at the club with a homemade cake topped with sprinkles.

"You're the new Miss Florida!" her sister said.

Pender learned that Dunlap had been crowned Miss America, leaving Florida without its own queen.

Pender thought about it for three days.

She had new goals now. She didn't know if she should leave Manhattan, abandon her new life.

But Pender had worked too hard for that crown.

Finally, it was hers.

* * *

On Nov. 7, two weeks into her reign as Miss Florida, Pender was sitting in the back seat of a Lincoln Town Car, heading to Miami for a fundraiser.

About 4 p.m., a Ford pickup changed lanes and caused the Lincoln to veer out of control. A semitrailer truck carrying avocados swerved and toppled over on the Lincoln.

Firefighters pried Pender out of the car. They didn't expect her to live.

At the hospital, doctors pumped her heart back to life with their hands. They performed six surgeries.

Pender couldn't walk and couldn't talk because of damage to her vocal cords.

After almost seven weeks, she went home.

"I was like a baby, having to relearn all over again," she said.

She couldn't put on makeup. She could barely use her hands. Her singing career was certainly over.

Rather than attending parades or benefits, she had appointments with physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists. And she had to see another therapist to help her mind deal with it all.

Every day was hard.

"I just wanted to die," she said. "I thought it would be easier on everyone else, and on myself, to just not be here anymore."

For years, Pender has championed people with disabilities and special needs. That was her platform. A cruel twist of fate had left her on the other side of it.

"I live my platform, literally," Pender said. "I'm experiencing it first hand every day. It's torture."

* * *

Pender has spent a lot of time asking why.

She hasn't come up with any answers. At least none that satisfy her.

"Bad things happen to good people," is about all she can muster.

She sees no silver lining.

"I just have to go day by day," she said. "Every day is a challenge. I have good ones and bad."

She hasn't shown it this week at the pageant.

Even among 43 beauty queens, Pender catches your eye. She is 5 foot 9, with shiny brown hair, her lips pink and perfectly glossed.

Staring at her, pageant official Larry Hernandez can't help but gush.

"She's stardom waiting to happen," he says. "Just look at her. You don't have to hear what she says, you just kind of want to be there."

Pender doesn't hide her wounds. She wears dresses and tank tops that display the grapefruit-sized lump on her upper chest, caused by a type of bubble implanted by doctors to stretch her skin and minimize scarring.

People stare, and she tries not to mind.

"This is me now," Pender says. "They're my battle wounds. I fought for my life, and I won."

She's enjoying her final days as Miss Florida, but doesn't want it to end.

"I'm still in denial," she said.

After the pageant, Pender has more therapy and more surgery.

But she's still dreaming of bright lights and Broadway. Someday, she'll get there.

"In the end," she whispers, "I will be perfect again."

- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report. Jamie Thompson can be reached at jjones@sptimes.com or 727 893-8455.

[Last modified June 24, 2004, 13:31:07]


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