Monday, Dec. 24, 2012 | 8:45 p.m.
When Laura Kaeppeler was crowned 2012 Miss America nearly a year ago at Planet Hollywood, eyebrows were raised when she revealed that her father had served prison time for postal fraud. She made teaching children of incarcerated parents her platform and has had an incredible year’s reign.
In the 12 months that she’s championed her cause and others, Laura has received many awards for her care of children of prisoners. “I try to offer a positive light to these children and let them know it doesn’t have to define them, and it doesn’t have to limit their possibilities,” she said.
As the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals national goodwill ambassador, the raven-haired Kenosha, Wis., opera singer, 24, also has raised awareness and record funds in the past 12 months. She kicked off the IHOP National Pancake Day right after her coronation, and more than $3 million was raised.
Laura returns to Las Vegas on Jan. 3 as the 2013 Miss America Pageant contestants prepare for the 2-hour ABC telecast on Saturday, Jan. 12. I talked with her as she began preparations to relinquish her crown and title and offered her Christmas message.
Robin Leach: I’d love you to go back to when your name was called a year ago. Did you believe it at that moment, and how has this year changed you from the young lady whose knees may have buckled a year ago?
Laura Kaeppeler: I have to start by saying my goal going to Miss America was to make the Top 10 and win the talent preliminary. When I won talent, I knew that was a step in the right direction. Then I made the Top 15, and then the Top 12, and then the Top 10, and I thought that my job was done. I had reached the goal that I wanted, and then when I was called into the Top 5, I couldn’t believe it because that was just a blessing and so much more than I had ever dreamed.
Then as the elimination began, I remembered being the last two standing, with Miss Oklahoma Betty Thompson, who became a really great friend of mine. We were standing there, and in part of my mind, I felt like my name could be called, and then in the other part of my mind, I knew that I was standing there with another extraordinary woman. I really didn’t know what was going to happen!
Some girls have that inkling or intuition -- I didn’t have that -- so when they did call my name, I was just overwhelmed with excitement and joy. I worked extremely hard for months and months and months, a work in progress leading me to that moment. All that hard work paid off in a way that I never in a million years had dreamed or expected. It was really an incredible moment, but I can’t really even remember it.
It is an extremely unusual year in that you are one day Laura from Wisconsin, and the next minute you are Miss America, and you are thrown into this crazy year of travel, appearances and nonstop schedule. It really pushes you to the limit in what you think you are capable of; I have been so proud of the growth, personally and professionally. I am not going to say just this year, but the entire journey leading up to it really helped shape me into the woman I am today, and I am so proud of that young woman.
I feel like I am 40 years old now after this year, a 40-year-old trapped in an almost 25-year-old’s body.
R.L.: It obviously defines your growing up, so what did you learn from this experience?
L.K.: You learn so many different things. I think patience is the No. 1 thing that I have learned this year because you are dealing with an appearance and travel schedule that is out of your control.
It is a year that you are really not living for yourself; serving others before yourself is the name of the game. I have really learned to be selfless, and I have really learned what a great feeling it is to give because when you give, you gain so much in return.
This year really pushes you to your limit, and I have learned when to say no, and I think that is a really important quality to have. It is so hard, but you are under intense pressure and scrutiny. Now I know myself extremely well; I know what I can handle and I know what I cannot. So, I think being able to say no in certain circumstances has been really helpful this year.
R.L.: The most memorable moment of the year? The most embarrassing?
L.K.: The highlights of my year have come every day in some small way or form. My platform is what is the most important to me, so the highlight has been working with it and the children it affects. For me, the small moments when no media are present and it is just one split-second glimpse of pure beauty in a child or pure innocence is what really resonated with me to say that my job was well done.
There were two kids who came up to me one time and said, “I think you are brave for telling your story.” Then another kid, “I am just like you; my dad was in prison, too.” Those were so powerful that they resonated with me, and, looking back, the likes of those two examples have been the highlight of my year.
The most embarrassing: I did forget the crown at a grocery store! I also had a woman bow to me on all fours one time, and that was just awkward. I forgot my crown, missed a flight -- drama happens every day all the time.
R.L.: Did the TSA bust you for the crown anywhere?
L.K.: I was never stopped by security. One time in the Milwaukee airport, they did ask to see the crown -- more for curiosity than security. Other than that, I was never stopped once; isn’t that unbelievable? I was really amazed!
R.L.: Now that you relinquish this crown, what is next for Laura, and how do you continue what you started with the program for kids with parents in prison?
L.K.: I will continue with speaking and guest performances on a much lesser scale. I am becoming a national spokeswoman for mentoring programs, and I have a very strategic plan for appearances next year because I want to work even more with my platform than I was able to this past year.
So, I hope to travel for maybe about another year, making appearances and advocating for children with incarcerated parents through those partnerships, but, in the next year, I’ll also take an LSAT prep course, take the LSAT, and apply to law school and practice family law.
Eventually, I would love a family. I love children, and I loved seeing so many children this year with CMN and the appearances. One day, but I am not putting a time limit on it because things never happen in that order. I did not have a boyfriend going into Miss America, which I think was a huge blessing in disguise. It is such a hard year to have anyone stick beside you or even begin to understand what the schedule was like, so I was really lucky in that sense.
R.L.: What would you like to say to America for Christmas?
LK: Well, I think amidst the tragedy that we just saw in Connecticut, and the various different acts of violence that we have seen this year, and an election that proved split voting in the country, I think Christmas, and the holidays in general, we should really reflect on our family, friends and closest loved ones and realize that we have seen proof that tomorrow is not guaranteed.
Family and friends are truly what mean the most, so I hope that everyone enjoys the holidays with the people who mean the most to them. We must remember the small things in life are the ones that matter. We can remember that every day, even long after the holiday season is over.
R.L.: What is your message to the girl who is going to take your place and also to all the young girls who are out there in the United States thinking that they should one day try to be Miss America?
L.K.: To all the girls who want to one day be Miss America, this year I worked really hard to spread a message of being attainable and relatable and achievable. I never thought growing up the girl whose dad spent time in prison could become Miss America. I hope that is a very strong message to young girls who have a talent, who are looking for scholarship money, who have adversity in their background, that if they put their mind to it and they work hard and believe in themselves, that they can go on to accomplish anything, whether it is Miss America or another dream or goal.
Along those same lines to the next lucky lady who is crowned Miss America, the year is extremely grueling and challenging, but it also is wonderfully rewarding and full of blessings. You don’t have to be perfect every step of the way. I think being in a pageant, and in this culture where women strive for perfection, and the media displays this image of what a perfect woman should be, the Miss America program really embodies the morals and values of what a young woman should represent.
So to the next young woman, remember what this program stands for, be yourself, be real and have flaws because people will respect that more than a young woman who strives for imperfect perfection.
R.L.: We live in the most troubled of times, we have seen incredible tragedy in the past few days, and it underscores basic flaws in the whole system: lack of involved family, lack of education, too much emphasis on video games, too many pharmaceutical drugs being prescribed. Is there hope for America that we will get better, that we will change? How do we set about making some of those changes?
L.K.: I believe so; I believe there is hope for our country and change. I think we are amidst of a lot of change, especially with this extremely unthinkable tragedy in Connecticut. I think everyone in our country is taking a step back and saying, “Wait a minute, there are things we need to work on, there are things we need to change.” Because this feels so different than any of the other unfortunate tragedies that we have seen this year.
I was very proud to be an American when I heard the president speaking. I felt a sense of hope for our country, I felt a sense of hope for change, immediate change, and change that would happen. As young people, we are faced with a lot of uncertainty in our future in terms of the economy and jobs, but we have hope.
I wouldn’t change anything that happened to me this past year. I would do it all over again. It has been incredible, memories that last a lifetime. It is bittersweet because I am excited to see the next phase and the next chapter. I don’t know if that comes with being on the older end of the spectrum, I will be 25 in March, but I am excited to see how this year will propel me into the future. It is an exciting time, not a sad time, for me.
The Miss America Pageant judges are Mary Hart (“Entertainment Tonight”), Cheryl Burke (“Dancing With the Stars”), Sam Champion (“Good Morning America”), Bradley Bayou (“The Oprah Winfrey Show”), Daymond John (“Shark Tank”), Katie Stam Irk (2009 Miss America) and 2012 Olympic gymnastics champion McKayla Maroney.
Chris Harrison of “The Bachelor” and Brooke Burke Charvet of “Dancing With the Stars” return as co-hosts. UNLV student Randi Sundquist, 22, represents Nevada in the pageant.
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.
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Catering to the young and modern crowd, Planet Hollywood is a one-stop shop for entertainment with its massive shopping mall, slew of restaurants, spacious casino and clubs.
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