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On the road with Miss America.


Long before the borrowed white limo delivered its very important passenger to the entrance of the Bowling Green, Kentucky, Holidome, word went forth to expect Someone Special. The clue was Room 168. Flowers had arrived at 11:00; a fruit basket followed at noon. By 12:30, green punch, wheat things and a cheese ball under plastic were arranged smorgasbord-style on the boguswood credenza.

But the piece de resistance was the Christmas tree, bedecked in ribbons and red cardinals and pushing up from an arch of red- and green-wrapped Christmas packages. All this in February. An envelope, laced into the straw of a woven welcome wreath on the door, named the honored guest: Sharlene Wells.


She also answers to Miss America. Halfway through her reign she's used to such preferential treatment and the if-it's-Tuesday-this-must-be-Scranton schedule. She estimates she travels 20,000 miles a month, a day in transit following every day and a half in a host city. Two paid companions, commissioned by the Miss America headquarters in New Jersey, rotate 30 days on the road, 30 days off, each acting as big sister, mother hen, confidante, sentinel and watchdog. "I take the heat,' explains Midge Stevenson, a Miss America companion for four years. "Miss America can't watch the clock; I can. Miss America can't say, "No autographs today'; I can.'

And she does. After all, Miss America can neither be late for her next obligation nor be allowed to wilt from exhaustion, and she's never permitted to work more than four hours a day. At least that's what her contract dictates.

"But those 4 hours don't count pulling clothes out of suitcases and ironing them, going to press conferences and eating meals that turn into 2-hour luncheons,' Sharlene says. "Sometimes 4 hours can stretch into 12. Everybody thinks this is so glamorous, but it's really not. If only I had someone to do my hair--I wouldn't look like this!'

She's grown accustomed to the pace, yet she is determined not to let it become ho-hum. "I don't want this to be a routine year,' she says. "Each place should be very different, and I've got to enjoy it and remember that the people who invite me are thrilled to have me, not because I'm Sharlene Wells, but because I'm Miss America. It's still hard for me to see my position; it kind of throws me. Why do they want my autograph? Why do they take so many pictures? I don't see "Miss America' all over me. Others do; I don't.'

She arrives at the Holidome amid a flurry of excitement and a plethora of plum luggage. Is there a music store nearby? she asks. Could the 3:30 press conference be pushed back to 4:00? Midge assumes check-in duties while a delegation from the sponsoring group--if this is Saturday, these must be Jaycees-- hoist luggage over their shoulders and wink at each other in anticipation of the big surprise: Wait till she sees the Christmas tree. They suggest that she follow their leader.

Onlookers feel a responsibility to pass judgment as she passes. Yes, she's pretty. Even very pretty. Not glamorous, mind you, not borderline gorgeous--but very pretty. Definitely Miss America-ish.

"Inever thought I was beautiful or anything,' she says. "After I won the title, I almost felt I had to look the part all the time so people wouldn't make fun of me and ask, "How did you win?' Now I've gotten to the place where, sure, I want to look nice, but I don't have to prove anything any more. If I look funny in a newspaper photo, that's O.K. If my nose looks three feet long, fine.'

Credit the thick skin to experience. A few days after winning the title in Atlantic City, she was interviewed and photographed by a words-and-pictures duo from People magazine. She had the sniffles, her eyes were bleary and, besides that, her feet hurt. The photographer assured her that the picture he wanted was the head-and-shoulders variety-- she had no reason to put her shoes on. She acquiesced, secured the crown to her blonde hair, arranged the folds of her reptile-patterned dress and assumed a regal pose.

Imagine her shock the next week when the picture was published full frame--her stocking feet revealing a full complement of Dr. Scholl's medicated disks. Ouch. The California designer Mr. Blackwell promptly named her to his infamous worst-dressed list and said she looked like an armadillo in corn pads.

"Wasn't that cute?' she asks with a groan. "I learned never to trust a photographer.'

With or without disks, she's prettier in person than in pictures. She has no weight problem beyond the enviable chore of keeping enough pounds on her 58 frame. When she competed for her title--eat your heart out, America--she was told to do just that . . . eat her heart out. Her father, an executive administrator with the Mormon Church, fed her malted milk shakes to prevent her from appearing too thin. She blames this pleasant dilemma partly on her metabolism ("I have a high rate') and partly on her lifelong fitness regimen ("I grew up with a football in one hand and a soccer ball in the other'). The confining Miss America travel schedule threatened to cramp her athletic lifestyle until she worked out a compromise.

"I can't run because they won't let me out on my own,' she explains. ("And your traveling companion sure isn't going to run with you,' Midge interrupts.) "I've never been an aerobics person,' Sharlene continues. "I like a sport where there's an end result--I want to win or lose. So, I've found racquetball is the best way to exercise my upper body, my legs-- everything.'

It might also be a way for her to socialize with people closer to her age--but no, even Miss America's opponents are carefully chosen for her.

"The sponsors who invite me to their city usually decide that I need to compete against one of their vice presidents or some other executive. I'd like to be able to associate more with college kids--this can be pretty lonely--but I go along with the plans because the sponsors are the ones who hire me.'

And the price is right. Sharlene has been told her earning potential for the year is about $125,000, not counting the $40,000 in scholarship money. "Which is kind of nice for a 20-year-old,' she quips.

The opportunity for scholarships was what caused her to compete for the crown in the first place. "I was always the one who said, "You'll never get me into one of those contests.' Then when I was a senior in high school I began to worry--how am I going to pay for my books? Where will the tuition money come from? One of my friends was involved in the Miss America program and convinced me it was a scholarship pageant, not a beauty contest. Actually, it's the largest scholarship foundation for women in the world. More than 4 1/2 million dollars are given out every year. And that's a lot of money to consider.'

She combats occasional bouts of loneliness on the road with telephone calls to classmates at Brigham Young University. Although she attended only two years of classes before the Miss America crown imposed a temporary hiatus, her allegiance to her alma mater remains intact. In hotel rooms along the regal route, she tracks BYU via its televised basketball games and squints to find a familiar face whenever the cameras pan the bleachers or the bench. She cheers her team on and issues armchair tips on how to thrash the opponent. In Bowling Green, it was Brigham Young vs. Notre Dame.

"You shouldn't have told me it was on,' she says, reaching for the television's on-off button. "I'll keep the volume low, O.K.? I'm their biggest fan. I used to know every player on the team, but since I wasn't there this year. . . .'

BYU was the logical place for her to enroll in 1982 because of its Mormon affiliation. The church has played a major role in her life ever since she was a little girl; her dad's missionary duties caused her to spend more than 11 years in South America. She jokes that the Wells clan is like a model U.N.--each of her six brothers and sisters was born in a different country. Paraguay influenced her greatly, although most of her time in South America was spent in Argentina and in Chile.

The lure of BYU eventually brought her to Provo, Utah, where she competed successfully in scholarship-beauty pageants that led her to the Miss America contest. In Atlantic City, judges were impressed with her performance--she played a medley of ten songs on the Paraguayan harp-- and her ability to speak Spanish fluently. Both talents were throwbacks to her South American experience. At no time, she stresses, did anyone delve into her personal life in search of a Miss America scandal of the variety that plagued the 1984 winner, Vanessa Williams.

"During the seven-minute interview with the judges I was asked absolutely nothing about my religion, my morals or my background. We talked about my wanting to coach a Little League team someday, about the development of soccer in the United States and about my being bilingual. My religion wasn't discussed.'

The press pressed, however, to find a skeleton in her closet. The best it could produce: buried tales of a squeaky-clean ex-tomboy with a long history of saying "no' to such temptations as coffee, alcohol and cigarettes. What's more, she's always been a lowkey advocate of virginity; early in her reign, she went on record as saying that other girls could do what they pleased--but she'd wait for the wedding vows, thank you. Those words caused pageant officials who were still smarting from "the Vanessa thing' to heave a collective sigh of relief.

"Somebody's got to stick up for this stuff,' says Sharlene. "I want to wait until marriage not because I think I'm better than anyone else; it's just a personal value. I have to be happy with myself. I'm the one who has to look in the mirror in the mornings. I'm the one who has to live with myself, so I need to be honest with myself. What do I really believe? What are my goals? I can't let the whims of everyone else influence what I say or do.'

Still, she's cheerfully tolerant of people who don't share her views. At her Bowling Green performance she's expected to sing ballads above the din of after-banquet conversation, look bright eyed through the heavy haze of cigarette smoke and not be offended by guests who slip out mid-performance in the direction of the pub. It's Minnesota one day, Tennessee the next and Oklahoma coming up. In the first half of her reign she's learned a lot not only about the country and its people but also about herself.

"I've learned I can handle more than I thought I could,' she admits. "I've learned to be cheerfully flexible. I've always been a very scheduled person. And at first I was frustrated by an itinerary that kept changing. Obligations would be added to my day to the point that I found I had very little time for myself. It's like a concentrated public-relations job for a whole year, and it requires a lot of mental preparation. But now I've learned to utilize an hour here and an hour there more to my advantage. When I'm riding on a plane, for instance, I write in my journal and keep up with thank-you notes and letters. Also I picked up an English honors reading list at school and am trying to catch up with the classics.'

She recognizes that the Miss America title offers her a forum to promote whatever "cause' she might champion. She's less interested in touting her vocal talent--she anticipates a career in management, not music--than in sharing serious thoughts on current issues. Take education, for instance.

"I'm disappointed our government doesn't spend more energy and money on it,' she says. "After living outside the U.S., I saw the contrast between the discipline other countries have and what we have here. Their kids are learning foreign languages, and here we barely know English. Teachers don't demand enough from their students, and students don't demand enough from their teachers.'

Determined as she is to enjoy her tenure as Miss America, she's eager to get back to her own education. She's had second thoughts about a career in broadcast journalism after dealing with the media for nearly a year, and now she favors recreation management. An MBA degree from Harvard is her dream; she recently completed the necessary application forms. Her academic honors were given priority and her Miss America title was listed toward the bottom. But first she must complete her bachelor's degree and, before that, take a well-earned vacation.

Between the time she passes the baton to her successor in September and the day she moves back to her tiny Brigham Young apartment in October, she plans a month of unscheduled, carefree R and R. "It sounds crazy, but my sister and I are going directly to England to spend a week or two,' she says. "Neither of us has ever been there, but we'd both like to take classes at Oxford or Cambridge someday, so we're going to check it out.'

The notion of traveling without a schedule, a companion or a chauffeur to pick her up and deliver her to the next airport delights Sharlene, whose driver's license was only a year old when the Miss America title prompted her to trade new freedom for even newer fame. Before long, the fame will be assumed by her successor. And as for Sharlene, well . . .

"I'm looking forward to getting back into the driver's seat.'

Photo: The harp won Sharlene talent honors at the Miss America pageant and made up 50 percent of the judges' final tally. On tour, she prefers her more mobile vocal chords. At right, she hugs baby sister Elayne.

Photo: Robert G. Wells was an international banker when called by his church to supervise missionary work in South America. Both parents were on hand for the big moment on September 15, 1984.

Photo: Sharlene, 11, accepts TLC from her favorite pooch, Pupsie, her gift when she turned 7. Her advice on pageants: Go for the scholarship, not the title.

Photo: Rapelling and snowmobiling aren't traditional hobbies for a Miss America, but the young Sharlene wasn't a typical beauty-queen contestant.

Photo: Sharlene claims she never owned a doll and always preferred being "one of the boys.' In 1981, she was a star hurdler on her high-school track team.

Photo: Among Sharlene's fans is her 92-year-old grandmother. Others include Ronald Reagan, whose inauguration she rates as a highlight of her reign. A visit backstage at the Grand Ole Opry and a hug from Muhammad Ali are top memories too.
COPYRIGHT 1985 Saturday Evening Post Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Sharlene Wells
Author:Miller, Holly G.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:May 1, 1985
Previous Article:Money talk.
Next Article:The April witch.

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