American Beauty

Yes, she's Miss America. But after defeating anorexia, touring the nation, and finding a place at Emory, she's also one of us.

By Mary Loftus

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Photos by Kay Hinton.

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 The first thing you need to know about twenty-three-year-old Kirsten Haglund 13C is that she has heard every question you are about to ask her one hundred times over.

After her year as Miss America 2008 (twenty thousand travel miles a month, forty-eight states, two suitcases), Haglund is a seasoned public speaker and interview subject.

She’s appeared on FOX, CNN, and every local affiliate waiting in the lobby of her hotel. She has sung the national anthem at dozens of pro games—for the Lakers, Pistons, Nuggets, Lions, Eagles, Phillies, and Tigers. She’s signed autographs at small-town Walmarts, performed in Thanksgiving parades, and attended the Commander-in-Chief Inaugural Ball, waiting in the green room with Smokey Robinson and Jordin Sparks.

Clips on YouTube show her joking with Regis and Kelly, singing the title song from her EP, American Pride, appearing on The Sean Hannity Show, and speaking at the “Redefining Beauty” lecture series at Harvard University.

You could forgive her a little wariness, indeed, weariness, of the whole process.

And yet, sipping a tall vanilla rooibos hot tea at an Atlanta Starbucks, she answers each successive query thoughtfully: How it felt to be crowned with her grandmother, Miss Michigan 1944, watching. (“I wish the camera had been on her to capture her reaction.”) Her mother’s battle with breast cancer. (“It was a scary time for our family.”) Her struggle with anorexia. (“My dream of being a ballet dancer caused me to do a lot of things to myself and my body that were painful.”) Her faith. (“I don’t know how I would have recovered without it—as a child of God I found worth outside of just being beautiful or skinny.”)

Stark honesty is a disarming trait in a beauty queen.

She is also bold enough to admit that she’s a young conservative attending a somewhat liberal university. But as an older-than-average college senior with a lot of experience under her sash, Haglund has a confidence that comes with knowing her own mind.

“I’ve watched the news every morning since I was a child and debated political issues with my dad since fifth grade,” says Haglund. “But I really found my voice during that year of traveling the country at nineteen. I was able to lobby Congress for parity for eating disorder coverage, to talk about real-world issues I strongly believe in.”

A political science major, Haglund is a regular on Sean Hannity’s “Great American Panel,” and counts the host as a friend—not to mention a bit of a matchmaker.

“He was the first one to predict that my fiancé and I were going to get married,” she says. “I have a lot of respect for Sean. He’s definitely a strong personality, but he’s much more of a normal guy than you see on television. It’s news, but it’s also entertainment.”

A dancer from age three, Kirsten Lora Haglund was a natural performer as a child in Farmington Hills, Michigan, a girly girl who loved dressing up and playing Barbies, says her mother.

“We used to watch Miss America every year because my mom [Kirsten’s grandmother] was a former Miss Michigan,” says Iora Haglund. “Once, when Kirsten was two, she wanted to buy a bouquet of fake roses, and when we got home she ran upstairs and put on her swimsuit and a cardboard tiara and got up on the fireplace hearth. I took a picture, it was adorable, but when the flash went off I had a chilling, weird moment, like, ‘She’s going to be Miss America someday.’ Of course, I dismissed it, but when she was competing, in that very last moment, I got that same chill. Her dad and I looked at each other and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s going to win.’ ”

As a girl, however, Haglund didn’t want to be a pageant contestant; she wanted to be a ballerina.

And that was how the trouble with food began.

“When I was twelve, I went away to a very intensive ballet camp for the summer. I was living away from home for the first time, and my mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer,” she says. “Also, I was going through puberty, and I dreaded that. As a ballet dancer you want to stay thin and graceful and elegant.”

She remembers the day she threw her lunch away for the first time. Everyone else was having a bit of granola, an apple. “I felt like a cow, eating a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich,” she says.

Not eating felt like being in complete control—at least of her own body. “I felt above mere mortals, that I could subsist without food. Restricting calories was accomplishing what other people couldn’t. It gave me significance. I was the skinny girl.”

Already tall and slim, Haglund started with the aim of losing five pounds, but that number rapidly escalated. She began severely restricting her food intake to just nine hundred calories a day, living mostly on Diet Coke, coffee, gum, lettuce, and an occasional spoonful of peanut butter or grilled chicken breast with lemon.

“I started to hate dancing,” she says. “I was tired and had no energy, and you always had to look in mirrors. I was never satisfied; I kept seeing parts of my body I hated more and more.”

Always a straight-A student, she was still excelling in school. But deep down, Haglund knew something was wrong. Her hair started to fall out, her nails became brittle, and she was always cold. She stopped having her period. She isolated, staying away from social functions with food or friends who asked questions.

She lost thirty pounds in three years. When her parents intervened and took her to a doctor, Haglund remembers, “I was so mad. And I hated that doctor. Now we’re friends, so I can say that.”

Her mom remembers feeling that their relationship had changed, but attributed it to teenage years and hormones. “I felt some tension and something going on, but I couldn’t really put my finger on it. Other mothers I talked to were experiencing the same thing,” Iora says. “She started to look thinner, but she completely denied it to me. It was my husband, actually, who looked up signs and symptoms of eating disorders online. I said, oh, no way, but he showed me the list, and it became clear to me at that point. We got her to go to the doctor.”

A physical showed that Haglund’s health, at fifteen, had already been compromised. She had osteopenia, a precursor to osteoporosis and renal insufficiency. She began seeing an eating disorder specialist, a nutritionist, and a psychologist, multiple times a week throughout high school.

“I can’t even remember now what I saw in the mirror when I was sick, because my eyes have changed,” she says. “But I do remember feeling that my willpower, the restrictions, were never enough. I kept a journal of what I ate and how much I exercised, and had a constant dialogue going on in my brain, whenever I consumed calories, of how and when I was going to burn them off.”

Her older brother, now a dancer on a national tour, was at the time exhibiting signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder—hand washing, lock checking—and her mother had bouts of clinical depression. “Genetics loads the gun and environment pulls the trigger,” Haglund says. “I think I had both a genetic predisposition and also stressors, like ballet.”

But she overcame the disorder before entering her first pageant, Miss Oakland County—a stepping stone to Miss Michigan—at seventeen. She wanted to attend the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, and needed scholarships to afford tuition. Haglund competed in the Miss Michigan pageant in June 2007. She won a preliminary swimsuit award and performed “Adele’s Laughing Song” from the operetta Die Fledermaus. “I never expected to win Miss Oakland, let alone Miss Michigan,” she says. “It was my first pageant ever, and state was my second.”

Haglund believes that pageants, rather than compromising her recovery from anorexia, actually helped her to heal. “The ideal pageant body is much healthier than the ideal ballet dancer’s body,” she says.

At nineteen, she went on to represent Michigan in the Miss America 2008 pageant, a newly “modernized” version broadcast for the first time on the network TLC. The youngest of the fifty-three women vying for the crown, Haglund sang a Broadway-style rendition of “Over the Rainbow,” and her platform was eating disorder awareness.

On January 26, 2008, more than three million TV viewers watched as Haglund was crowned the eighty-third Miss America, succeeding Lauren Nelson of Oklahoma.

“One of the great things about being a Miss America is being a part of a very prestigious sorority,” Nelson says. “I always knew that if I needed help or guidance, I could call on my Miss America sisters for advice. I had the awesome blessing of crowning Kirsten, and we have become such good friends. I actually got to meet Kirsten before she won Miss America, when she was Miss Michigan. I remember being so impressed with her poise and grace. When she won, I was not the least bit surprised.”

A musical theater major at the University of Cincinnati Conservatory, Haglund took time off to fulfill her obligations as Miss Michigan and Miss America. The year of travel was exhilarating, but also exhausting.

“The title catapulted me to a level of expectation and pressure I had never experienced before. You’re public property and can’t really have a bad day,” she says, recalling an instance on a plane where, during descent, a flight attendant who was also a teacher gave her a piece of paper and asked her to write an inspirational letter to her students: “Nothing like a timed essay on a plane!”

After her year of service was over, she went to Los Angeles and hired an agent, but quickly found it wasn’t the place for her. “There were so many things about the industry that I didn’t like,” she says. “I felt that I would have to compromise my values. I was a role model to little girls, and I had to practice what I preached.”

With $60,000 in scholarship money, Haglund decided to resume college at Emory, largely because of its location in Atlanta and its top-twenty standing. As a student, Haglund says she doesn’t advertise that she held the title of Miss America, but sources such as her Facebook page make it difficult to hide.

“I believe the students were unaware of her title until I asked Kirsten to share her experience of being on the other side of an interview,” says Kathy Brister, her journalism instructor. “She gave great insight, not only into what it felt like to be written about—sometimes inaccurately—but also into the difference between being interviewed by a journalist who was well prepared and one who clearly had not done any backgrounding before the interview. That class discussion was the first time I realized the daily responsibilities that came with the title. Kirsten said she was interviewed hundreds of times during that year.”

Mellon Professor of Politics and History Harvey Klehr says, “Kirsten is a dedicated student. She asks serious and thoughtful questions, has the ability to see connections, and writes very well. Probably because of her extensive public speaking, she is extraordinarily poised when dealing with questions in class. She responds in paragraphs that flow logically and thematically. Even without the Miss America title, it would be clear she’s going to do important things in the future.”

Haglund has continued to pursue her pageant platform by starting the Kirsten Haglund Foundation to assist girls who need treatment for eating disorders. The foundation has given financial assistance to thirteen girls so far and has helped countless others by advocating for their treatment, assisting with insurance, and providing encouragement. Haglund speaks at events all over the country about body image and overcoming anorexia. “Parents can sometimes think it’s just a phase,” she says. “But if you catch it early, like anything else, there’s a much better chance for recovery.”

Haglund also is considering career opportunities in broadcast journalism. And, just as Sean Hannity predicted, she is looking forward to her wedding this summer.

“Besides Kirsten being a pleasure to my eyes,” says fiancé Ryan Smith, regional sales manager for the Internet marketing company ReachLocal, “the traits that struck me were her ability to communicate clearly and intelligently about many subjects, her philosophy of life, her poise and strength under pressure, and her spiritual clarity about who God is.”

Haglund admires the romance between her grandparents, who were dating when her grandfather was sent to fight in the South Pacific in World War II. “For her talent in the Miss America pageant, she sang ‘Goodnight Wherever you Are’ to him,” she says, “and he carried a photo of her in her swimsuit.” Her grandmother died last summer, but Haglund often wears the diamond and sapphire ring her grandfather designed for his own Miss Michigan.

As she leaves Starbucks to meet with her pastor and go over preparations for her wedding, Haglund notices a butterfly flit through the door into the coffee shop. She turns around and gently shoos it back outside. “You don’t want to live in a glass box for the rest of your life,” she tells it.

Then Miss America 2008 drives off in her bronze Jeep Liberty, a slightly dazed barista staring after her.

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