Inside Miss America's head

Costa Mesa High School's drama students will soon lift the curtain on a musical that revels in the backstage drama of beauty pageants, and on Thursday they researched the real thing.

Angela Perez-Baraquio, who Miss America 2001 and the first Asian American to win the title, coached actors on the mindset of a winner, told stories of accused sabotage and stolen underwear. And, of course, she taught them the pageant wave.

Elbow elbow, wrist wrist, turn the light bulb, she said, "You can mix that up."

The student performers laughed.

"I have always mocked the wave," Perez-Baraquio said. "It's just so fake."

The Honolulu native said she was more prone to throw up the shaka, or "hang loose," sign.

But the ubiquitous pageant gesture could be perfect for Mesa's drama students.

They are producing "Smile," a 1980s Marvin Hamlisch and Howard Ashman musical that focuses on edgy drama behind the glitz of the fictional Young American Miss contest.

The play's music director, Erik Przytulski, plays in a band with Perez-Baraquio's husband. He casually asked one day if the cast would like a former Miss America to drop by, and director Kathy Paladino jumped at the chance.

"The kids are just really excited," she said before Perez-Baraquio arrived. "They've been trying to do this wave, and they don't know what they're doing."

Now, thanks to Perez-Baraquio, they do know what they're doing. But more than anything, the former Miss America let the students into her head.

Now a teacher, she competed in pageants when she was 18 and 19 without major success. It wasn't until her students challenged her to return to the circuit at 24 that she won the Miss Hawaii and Miss America crowns.

Her continual refrain was confidence.

During her competition, she would mentally return to playing and coaching basketball, motivating herself to do one more wind-sprint or give one more interview answer.

"You've got to fake it 'till you make it, basically, because you really will become what you think you are," she said.

That glimpse into her head went a long way for the students, who performed a number for her before she left.

"There was a lot of great advice for my character," said senior Hayley Smith, who plays Doria Hudson, a pageant contestant who never quite gains her confidence. "It was really great."

"Smile" plays at 7 p.m. Thursday, and March 8, 9, 14, 15 and 16. It also plays at 2 p.m. March 10 and 17. Tickets are $12 at the door.

Twitter: @jeremiahdobruck

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