WAPATO, Wash. - Elyse Umemoto, born and raised on the Yakama Indian Reservation in the small town of Wapato, is on her way to the Miss America Pageant at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in Las Vegas Jan. 26. Last July, Washington state crowned her its first American Indian ever in the history of the Miss Washington competition.
Umemoto breaks down her ethnicity by ''quads'' - one-quarter Yakama Indian, Japanese, Hispanic and German. When asked which one of her quarters she identifies with the most, she proudly declares her Native ''quad.'' Her pageant platform reflects her multicultural upbringing, ''embracing diversity, empowering women.''
The 23-year-old college student surpasses the ''pageant girl'' stereotype of being raised in the pageant world, often from a privileged background.
In fact, she entered her first beauty contest in 2006 with the encouragement of a friend and the motivation to earn scholarship money for college.
''I just kind of fell into it,'' she said.
She went on to win her first pageant that year, and was crowned Miss Pierce County. When she entered the Miss Washington competition in July 2006, she came close to earning the crown when she placed as the first runner-up.
The second time around was the charm. She said she felt as if she had nothing to lose and went with the attitude that she was there to compete without completely stressing herself out. Her carefree attitude worked for the judges and earned her the crown. To date she has earned about $30,000 toward her college education.
''I want to dispel the myth about the beauty queen,'' she said. ''You don't have to look like someone on TV; you just have to believe in yourself.''
In retrospect, Umemoto describes her childhood appearance as the antithesis of beauty - an awkward and scrawny girl who wore braces and glasses. ''I was the puniest little nerd you ever saw,'' she said.
Regardless of those challenges, she strived to stay active and engaged in various sports and activities. When she turned 11, she joined the Wapato Indian Club. During her eight years as a member of that ensemble, she traveled frequently and as far as Chicago, performing traditional songs, dances and sign language.
Perhaps it was her years of performing for the public that gave her the courage to spearhead the Project Princess program for the YWCA of Pierce County. The program raised nearly $25,000 to help low-income high school girls receive formal gowns for their high school proms. ''I really found my niche in the YWCA,'' she said.
Since being crowned Miss Washington, Umemoto said her schedule has kept her busy with a variety of seemingly endless engagements. Her mother, Luana Lumley, said her oldest of four daughters often starts her day in the pre-dawn hours and ends in the evening, and she manages her hectic schedule by taking to heart a few tenants of pageant philosophy: ''speech, poise and service.''
''What she has done to touch people's lives and hearts is just amazing,'' Lumley said.
Umemoto's daily schedule varies, and the demand for her time only grows as the countdown draws near for the Miss America Pageant. ''I have been really stressed out about Miss America,'' she said.
But managing stress has become an art form for Umemoto. She said that some of the stress comes from worrying about letting down her supporters. To best deal with the stress, she has learned how to channel it through tapping her family for support. And she reminds herself of the carefree attitude she possessed when she was bestowed her current crown. ''I am going to go out and enjoy the experience,'' she said.
Umemoto recently finished wrapping up the taping of the reality show ''Miss America Reality Check'' on The Learning Channel. She spent nearly two weeks in a house filled with the 51 remaining beauty contestants with only five showers. During that time frame, the ladies had to endure the criticism of celebrity consultants on their appearance, speech and attitude.
''It was a challenge and it really does push you to your limit,'' she said. ''It gives viewers a chance to see us as human.''
If Umemoto wins the pageant, her already busy schedule will pick up more momentum. Miss America is required to change locations every 48 hours and travel about 20,000 miles a month to various locales across the nation, she said.
As for her educational goals, Umemoto is currently eight credits shy of earning two bachelor's degrees: a double major in psychology and political science with a minor in biology. She plans on attending law school, with an emphasis on practicing law relating to behavioral health and public policy.
For more information on the Miss America Pageant, visit www.missamerica.org. For information on Miss Washington, visit www.misswashington.org.