But she soon left them behind to concentrate on a career in education. She became a high school teacher of English literature. It was initially challenging, she recalls, because she was barely older than her students and looked more like a cheerleader than a faculty member. "I had to earn their respect," she says, "and I did it." Finally, in her mid-20s, after being told by countless people that she really was beautiful, Ms. Parker ventured back into pageants. She won the Miss South Carolina USA title, and a few months later she was crowned Miss USA 1994, becoming one of the most recognized women in America. She was among the Top 6 competitors at the Miss Universe Pageant that year.
Her pageant achievements led Miss Parker to reconsider an old dream and pursue a career as a broadcast journalist. She succeeded, and she is now a TV anchor in San Antonio. "Catching the Crown " is her first book.
PNB: You've written a book about how to become a pageant winner. Can you tell us how being a pageant winner has helped you?
Parker: It has helped me immensely. I was a high school teacher when I tried out for Miss USA, and, as the cliche goes, the pageant opened doors. It gave me opportunities in Hollywood, but I decided what I really wanted to do was work in television news. The guy who first hired me took a chance, but I did have the experience of being Miss USA, of being in front of people and connecting with them. Now I'm the main anchor at the Fox affiliate in San Antonio.
PNB: Some people say Southern girls are raised to be beauty queens. Did being Southern help you adjust to pageant culture?
Parker: I don't think it necessarily was a factor. Maybe "Southern charm" helps a little bit, but I wasn't a typical young Southern belle. I was older , and I dressed so casually that some of my students thought of me as the "hippie teacher." I always tried to be a real person, not somebody's idea of a particular type of pageant girl. I just wanted to be Lu. I talk a lot about this in my book. When you're competing on the pageant stage, you need to think of judges in terms of their being real people, not just celebrities. And you want to make each judge feel the same way about you.
PNB: What sorts of links have you maintained to the pageant world?
Parker: I don't have day-to-day involvement in the pageant world. My career takes most of my time. I have judged, but not so much lately. [She judges Miss Texas USA in July 2000.] I have coached a little bit. But I really haven't done much in the pageant field recently, except for writing a book.
PNB: Was there a person who played an indispensable role in making you a beauty queen?
Parker: There was a guy named Ernie Whiten, who was a hair and makeup artist, and he volunteered to become my mentor. Ernie saw something in me. He was good, and he was free, and I didn't have much money. He did it just because he was interested. I think he is a coach now, but then it was just informal.
PNB: Pageants are a training ground for the entertainment industry. Do the qualities that you learn in pageants also work when you're trying to succeed in show business?
Parker: Pageants can help you make a start, but I don't necessarily think pageant experience teaches you how to succeed in show business. It certainly doesn't guarantee it. But there is one big similarity. When you're a beauty queen, you are out and about, interacting with all kinds of people. Some of them like pageant people and some don't, but you have to try to make them all like you. Show business is like that, too. Even TV anchors have the same challenge. You have to make each viewer feel like a friend.
PNB: Some women specialize, sticking to certain types of pageants. There are the Miss America girls, the Miss USA girls, the swimsuit girls, etc. Some women do all kinds of contests. Which do you think is the right approach?
Parker: If you're good at it, why not try it all? The feeling is out there that you may be alienating certain people who look down on certain pageants, but women shouldn't be intimidated by that. It's all about finding out what you can do well.
PNB: Do all pageants feel pretty much the same when you're in them? Or are you a little more nervous when you know there are millions of people watching?
Parker: It's more about experience than about the size of the audience. I went through stages when I was more nervous. When I look back on the Miss South Carolina USA Pageant, I wonder how I did it. By the time I got to the Miss USA Pageant, I was less nervous. The more you do something, the better you get. I was also fortunate that Bob Goen, the host at Miss USA, kept me "in the moment." I felt it was just the two of us, and I didn't worry about the millions of people watching. In fact, the real significance of what I had accomplished didn't sink in for years. It took me until 1997 to realize it had actually happened. "Wow, I was Miss USA!"
PNB: Beauty queens have lost a little of their mystery in recent years, even in the few years since you competed. They talk openly about their boyfriends, about plastic surgery. They can get away with being more opinionated and using slightly salty language. Have we gone too far?