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22 years of practice pays off

Jenna Edwards has spent two decades competing in pageants. Saturday, her efforts were rewarded with the Miss Florida title.

By JAMIE THOMPSON
Published June 27, 2004

[Times photo: Willie J. Allen Jr.]
Shauna Pender crowns new Miss Florida Jenna Edwards at the Mahaffey Theatre in St. Petersburg on Saturday.

ST. PETERSBURG - Jenna Edwards has been competing in beauty pageants since she was a baby. In her second, at 18 months old, she cried and screamed and ran off the stage.

But after more than 70 competitions, Edwards was prepared for the moment Saturday when she accepted the crown of Miss Florida 2004.

She placed a hand over her mouth and started to cry.

"I thought I was dreaming," she said.

The 22-year-old is a student at the University of Miami and entered the pageant as Miss Winter Park.

She will receive a $14,000 cash scholarship.

Shannon Schambeau, Miss Pinellas County, was first runner-up and won a $5,000 cash scholarship. Second runner-up was Kristen O'Rear, Miss St. Petersburg, ($4,000 scholarship), followed by Meredith Kovarik, Miss Seminole, ($3,000 scholarship). Fourth runner-up was Megan Alonge, Miss Miami ($2,000 scholarship).

The winners were announced about 10 p.m. Saturday at the Mahaffey Theater in downtown St. Petersburg. It was the city's second time hosting the event that sends one woman to the Miss America competition in September.

The crowd of more than 1,000 quieted about 7:30 p.m. as spotlights flooded the stage and five muscular men twirled and leaped to pounding music.

Then the women came, tightly wrapped in silk, satin and chiffon, a parade of sassy red dresses and glittering low cut suits to fit the year's theme, "An Evening at the Moulin Rouge."

The women received catcalls, whistles and cheers as they said their names, flashed smiles and posed for the crowd.

Among this year's contestants was a woman licensed to operate a forklift; a national finalist for American Idol 2003; a dancer who received a perfect score on a national science exam; and a singer who will soon appear on the cover of a book, How to Date a Beautiful Woman.

In all, 42 women competed in the state's 69th pageant. They were both veterans and newcomers, 17 to 24 years old. From preliminary competitions this week, judges selected their top 10. They graded the women on interviews (40 percent), talent (30 percent), evening wear (10 percent), fitness/swimsuit (10 percent) and overall (10 percent).

On Saturday night, the top 10 sang and danced again for the judges, and also walked the stage in bikinis and formal gowns. Judges then narrowed it down to five, and those women were asked a question on stage before the winner was announced.

Contestants this year won a total of $52,900 in scholarships, up nearly $10,000 from last year. Pageant director Mary Sullivan said she hopes to raise that figure to $100,000 within five years.

She took over the ailing pageant in 2002 when it had no cash for scholarships and no money to host the weeklong event. She turned it around in several weeks and last year, moved the pageant to St. Petersburg.

She said she hopes to keep it here permanently. But the pageant can't be held at Mahaffey next year because of renovations, Sullivan said. She toured Ruth Eckerd Hall this week in search of a new location, but nothing has been decided.

"We love the charm of downtown St. Petersburg," she said, "and the support of the political leaders. We're going to try and work something out."

Sullivan said she wants to make the pageant more contemporary and relevant, and to broadcast it on television in coming years.

The evening was bittersweet for the reigning Miss Florida, Shauna Pender, who glided across the stage in elegant gowns and thanked everyone for helping her through the past year.

Pender, a five-time veteran of the pageant, was first runner-up last year and then captured the crown when winner Ericka Dunlap was named Miss America.

In November, two weeks into her reign, Pender was almost killed in a wreck while traveling to a fundraiser in Miami.

"I only hope," Pender said playfully this week, "that the next Miss Florida can be as good as I've been."

For some of the women, Saturday was a disappointing end to their quest for the crown.

Schambeau, Miss Pinellas County, has competed five times.

The Pasco High graduate was in the top 10 last year, and won two preliminary awards in evening gown and swimsuit this year.

Competing in pageants since she was 15, Schambeau, 23, is finishing her master's degree in business administration at Saint Leo University. Now, she'll focus on her goal of becoming a business executive.

"This is it," she said. "I'm moving on."

- Jamie Thompson can be reached at 727 893-8455 or jjones@sptimes.com

[Last modified June 27, 2004, 01:00:42]


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