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Beauty and the Books

Deep inside the history of every major beauty pageant lurks a defining, egg-on-the-face incident. For Miss USA, it occurred in the contest's sixth year, 1957, when Miss Maryland, Leona Gage, snagged the crown. Back home, Gage's proud mother-in-law, forgetting that loose lips sink ships, revealed that Leona was, in fact, 18 years old and not 21, as her pageant application stated. Also disclosed: Leona was currently working on her second marriage, to an Air Force sergeant, while raising two kids from her first matrimonial go-round, which took place when she was a mere 14 -- to a man twice her age. Contest officials scrambled into damage-control overdrive, dethroning Gage and naming first runner-up Charlotte "Miss Utah" Sheffield the titleholder. By then, it seems, Leona had spent her Miss USA treasure-trove.

Carrie Mewha presents no such cringe-inducing conundrum. Selected Miss Broward County earlier this year, the 23-year-old University of Miami medical student is now set to vie against 54 other entrants for the Miss Florida USA tiara July 13 at the Westin Diplomat Resort and Spa in Hollywood. In February, the new Miss Florida will compete in the national Miss USA contest, whose winner moves on to the 2003 Miss Universe pageant. On the surface at least, Mewha would appear unlikely to subject herself to a bathing suit/evening gown/interview song and dance, having graduated last year from the University of Florida with a degree in microbiology and cell science, augmented by an award in biochemistry research -- not forgetting her status as a National Merit scholar.

But being a science major in college and competing in pageants are not mutually exclusive, Mewha notes. "Given that I'm in medical school, it makes for a fun pursuit," she allows, speaking somewhat breathlessly on her cell phone while taking a break from a workout at her gym. "And I enjoy being on-stage and being around the others girls, many of whom are outgoing and ambitious young women."

Mewha first competed in beauty pageants as a teen, she recalls, then shunted them while an undergrad. But her selection as UF homecoming queen in 2000 apparently rekindled her interest: Last year, she copped the crown of Miss Daytona Beach, which propelled her into the Miss Florida USA contest, where she finished fourth runner-up.

Her presence in the upcoming pageant will not go unnoticed. According to Grant Gravitt Jr., executive producer of Tel-Air Interests, which stages the Miss Florida USA competition, Mewha and her co-contestants will be seen by about 5 million viewers worldwide, mostly via satellite broadcast. Enthusiasm particularly thrives in Spanish-speaking nations. "In Central and South America -- say, in Colombia -- the young lady who wins has a tax-free existence," Gravitt explains. "The countries down there stop for the Miss Universe pageant, just like the World Cup. It's front-page news."

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Michael Yockel

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