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Subject: Sunday Lunch with ... Miss Teen USA

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Date Posted: 05/23/04 3:50:04pm

May 23, 2004

'I'm totally not like what you would assume'

Tami Farrell is, along with her entourage of chaperones, waiting in the lobby of the Chicago Hilton and Towers when I arrive. Farrell, 19, the reigning Miss Teen USA, has her tiara and sash with her. Because a photographer will also be joining us, she has to wear them for the interview, though they don't quite go with her black leather jacket. Oh, and one more thing, an entourage member whispers, we can't take pictures of her eating. Pageant rules.

"That's ridiculous," Farrell says quietly and then adds, in a faux-Southern accent that is the universal signature of beauty queens everywhere, "I don't eat."

A single table has been set for us in the middle of the Hilton's grand ballroom. The idea, since Farrell is in town promoting the Buzz Free Prom campaign, which encourages teens to sign a pledge promising not to use alcohol or other drugs at their proms, was to set up the ballroom as if for a prom. Somehow, though, the single table, surrounded by all that elegant emptiness, looks bizarre rather than festive. And the inherent awkwardness of talking to someone who has an entourage -- and wears a crown -- isn't making our conversation seem any more natural.

"I'm totally not like what you would assume," she says, which is pretty much what I'd assumed any self-respecting teen beauty queen would say.

Growing up, she says, "I didn't do a lot of pageants. I have two brothers and, so, growing up, I was a huge tomboy."

So this was your first pageant, I say.

"This was actually my third time [in Miss Teen Oregon]," she says.

But, she quickly clarifies, this was not because she was absolutely determined to win. Or not determined in some kind of angry, un-Christian sort of way.

"Obviously," she says, "I wanted to win. But that wasn't my goal. My goal was just to have fun. I just kept praying to God for me to shine. I just wanted to shine for Him and be an example of Him."

Farrell won her state pageant -- God could not be reached for comment on whether this was, in fact, part of His divine plan -- in November of her senior year at Phoenix High School in southern Oregon. The national pageant wasn't until August. So her parents wanted her to make her post-graduation plans without counting on becoming Miss Teen USA. But Farrell didn't go for it.

"God just kept telling me the whole time, 'Just trust me, be patient with me,'" she says, "which was so hard for my parents to understand. Because my parents are religious people, but I guess when you have a daughter who's getting ready to graduate, you get anxious."

Winning got Farrell a lot of cool stuff: the tiara, of course, as well as a $10,000 appearance wardrobe, a spot at the New York School for Film and Television and a year of rent-free living in a New York apartment she shares with Miss USA and Miss Universe. (The three pageants are all produced by the Miss Universe Organization, which is a partnership between Donald Trump and NBC.)

"There's not that much time that we're all together," Farrell says of her beauty queen roommates. "Amelia [Vega, Miss Universe] travels so much."

But Farrell and Susie Castillo, who was, until a few weeks ago, Miss USA, were great friends. Farrell is just getting to know her new roommate, the recently crowned Shandi Finnessey.

"We go shopping together," she says, "and we TiVo things a lot so we can watch TV together."

The whole thing sounds a lot like dorm life, except that everyone is beautiful and classes are optional and money is no object. A cleaning service comes to straighten up the place once a week. Groceries are paid for by their open accounts at two local stores. A stylist comes by to bring them outfits to wear to events like movie premieres and promotional appearances.

And if it weren't already sounding like a reality-show version of "Charlie's Angels," there's a fax machine in the middle of the apartment that regularly spits out their daily schedules.

Farrell, who says she just loves having one of those rare days when she can stay home, do her laundry and bake some brownies, is the most domestic of the three.

"Amelia doesn't know how to cook at all," she says, sounding almost amazed. "Or clean."

As down-to-earth as she sounds, Farrell seems blissfully unaware that most 19-year-old women who come to New York to break into acting don't live in digs like hers.

"People think that because I'm Miss Teen USA, I've had this easy life and I've had everything handed to me," she says. "Some kids don't take me seriously because of that."

In fact, she says, she deserves to be taken seriously. At least as seriously as Miss America.

"There's kind of a stereotype on Miss Teen USA, Miss USA and Miss Universe," she says. "People think it's a beauty pageant just based on beauty.... With Miss America, they think, OK, that's a scholarship pageant."

Besides, Farrell says, she did get a scholarship out of the deal. She's taking acting, improv and voice classes. When she's not out of town making an appearance.

Picking at her cold salad plate and taking big sips of the water she's mixed with Vitamin C powder, Farrell says cheerfully that she sometimes feels like she spends as much time in the air as on the ground. So she doesn't have a lot of time for the things that might preoccupy a more typical 19-year-old.

"I have a 'friend' back home," she says, making those little finger quote marks as she describes a "sort of" romantic relationship that has, thus far, consisted of two dates: one in Seattle and one at the guy's house, watching a movie after his basketball game.

Her lifestyle -- and the crown -- can be a little off-putting for other teenagers, when she does things like visit high schools to urge kids not to drink on prom night.

"High school kids," she says, "they sometimes have their minds set, like why should I have to listen to her."

But Farrell says she usually gets through to her audiences because she's such a regular teen herself.

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