COLUMBIA — There was something noticeably missing when Miss South Carolina, Ali Rogers, arrived for an interview. There was no entourage. No PR rep to smooth stray strands of Rogers’ voluminous blond hair back into a bun, nobody to dab powder on her nose before a photo shoot and no one to smile while redirecting an interviewer’s line of questioning.
She hadn’t forgotten to wear the chunky bracelet with the words “Make a Difference” stenciled in black letters, the phrase a nod to her competition platform of making a difference for children with disabilities. She wears it for all appearances on stage and off – except for her talent, as playing the piano with such a bulky piece of jewelry would habitually interrupt key strokes.
Rogers, a Laurens native, carried the crown and sash she won at the Miss S.C. pageant at Township Auditorium in July in a brown scuffed and pockmarked box. Opening it for airport security has led to autograph sessions.
“They have a field day with that thing,” Rogers said. “They’re confused by what it is at first.”
Go ahead and check beauty off the search list, too. In stiletto heels, Rogers, who has long runner’s legs and a long torso, has the towering figure of a runway model. She has a pervasive smile and eyes that blink determination. But she’s an atypical pageant contestant, as Rogers said she’s more comfortable browsing the racks at Dick’s Sporting Goods or Academy Sports & Outdoors than at a dress boutique.
“I think since I haven’t been a pageant girl my whole life, my competitiveness stems from sports, not the glitz and the glamour of pageants,” Rogers said. “So I don’t really get into all that.”
As she was entering the final weeks of preparation for the Miss America pageant, what Rogers was apparently lacking at a mid-December interview, was stress. The pageant finale was a month away, broadcasting live from Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas Saturday on ABC in front of an estimated TV audience of 15 million.
Rogers, who flew to Las Vegas Jan. 2, said she finds the scenario weird.
“I didn’t grow up wanting to be Miss America, and I don’t think I realized until recently that I could be Miss America,” she said. “I love my job as Miss South Carolina and that was my focus the past six months, and so it’s really just kind of bizarre thinking about possibly winning the title of Miss America.”
Her appetite during the interview, conducted in The State Media Company’s newsroom, wasn’t missing either. Curious, she pulled aluminum foil off of cups left over from an office Christmas party. She ate a handful of chocolate morsels from one, M&Ms from another.
“It’s for energy,” she said.
Competing for kicks
When she steps onto the Miss America stage, Almeda Adair Rogers will be participating in only her seventh pageant. Some girls compete in that many in three years, the time since Rogers last represented the state, as Miss S.C. Teen, in the Miss America’s Outstanding Teen pageant.
“Well, that’s the thing. I grew up with sports as a hobby and they grew up competing in pageants as a hobby,” Rogers, who was Miss Laurens County, said. “So it’s just a difference in pastimes.”
Rogers, a golfer and softball player in high school and a quarterback for an intramural flag football team at Clemson University, has accepted the responsibility that comes with the crown. It’s more than hair-and-nail appointments, hugs and kisses.
“It’s on the road for hours upon hours a day,” Rogers, 21, said. “It’s traveling with a closet in the back seat. I live out of my car.”
Not that she expects you to feel bad for her. Along with the $22,750 she won in cash scholarships, Rogers, who is taking a year off from Clemson where she was a student senator and an intern in the football office, has been driving vehicles provided by Jim Satcher Motors. She started with a Jeep Grand Cherokee, and she arrived for her interview in a Ford Edge with an assortment of clothes hanging from a bar in the backseat.
“If I was not Miss South Carolina and I could choose a new car, it would be a truck,” said Rogers, who has driven a Ford F-150 this year. “But I didn’t like paying for the gas.”
Nor did she like breaking the hearts of men, those who crave the power of the popular full-size pickup but are stuck driving family minivans, at stoplights.
“It happened several times,” Rogers, whose favorite “gadget” is her four-wheeler, sheepishly said. “They just look away.”
Rogers was crowned Miss S.C. Teen in 2009 and was a top 10 finalist in Miss America’s Outstanding Teen, the pageant won in August by the state’s representative, Rachel Wyatt. Miss S.C. 2011, Bree Boyce, who lost more than 100 pounds on her dash to the crown, flew into Las Vegas in a wake of national media appearances.
Watching Boyce and other friends at Miss S.C. made Rogers want to compete again – but she didn’t decide to run for Miss Laurens County until a week before the February pageant. She wore her senior prom dress and played “Free Bird” on piano.
“It was a mad rush to find a swimsuit,” she said. “I wasn’t in shape like I am now, but it all worked out.”
Rogers excels at last-minute pageant entry. In 2009, the Miss Laurens County teen and miss competitions were resurrected after two dormant decades. Rogers, a first-chair violist in high school, was going to perform at the pageant in a string quartet. Instead, the pageant’s director asked her to compete.
“I was going to be there anyway, so why not compete for kicks,” Rogers reasoned.
While Rogers isn’t quick to tick off her accomplishments, her mother, Adair Rogers, will. Her daughter Alit was the first person to be class president in each grade at Laurens District 55 High School. She was No. 1 on the golf team and started at third base for the Raiders’ softball team. She was homecoming queen and Miss 55er, the latter a title chosen by school teachers. During her junior year, she won Miss LDHS, the first pageant she ever entered.
“I was so involved in high school and I wanted to represent my high school and Laurens in any capacity I could,” Rogers said.
Rogers, her mother said, never gets burdened by stress.
“Like water off a duck’s back, it doesn’t bother her,” Adair said during a separate interview at Zaxby’s in Laurens late last month. “She’s always gone at such a hectic pace, it just makes your head spin keeping up with her.”
“I think the reason that is, I’ve always been busy,” Rogers, who ate a salad, added. “I’ve always had completely full days, from sun up to sun down with sports and music. I’m passionate about so many things and when I’m passionate about something I give everything I got.
“I’m used to being so busy that’s there’s too much go-go-go to stress.”
There have been others who have marveled at her calm.
“Then I start stressing, not about Miss America, but I start stressing that, ‘Am I that weird that I’m not freaking out about it?’ ” she said.
After days of interviews, rehearsals and area appearances, the Miss America pageant preliminaries will be held Tuesday through Thursday. Rogers, who will be one of 53 contestants, will compete in swimsuit and evening gown the first night, talent the second and on-stage question the third.
Stephen M. Frocchi, the chairman of Miss S.C.’s board of directors, said Rogers’ humility is one of her best attributes.
“She truly wants to give back to the state that has shown her so much support and wants to bring home the crown for everyone to be proud of,” Frocchi said. “Ali has always played sports and been part of a team. While she will be the only one in the competition representing Team South Carolina, the entire Palmetto State will be in her heart as she rocks the Miss America stage.”
Rogers, to continue with the sports metaphors, might have home field advantage in the arena. There will be a total of 300 people in the South Carolina contingent, including 240 from Laurens, an city in the Upstate with a population less than 10,000, according to 2010 census figures.
“I really wanted this for the job of Miss South Carolina,” Rogers said. “I think being from such a tight-knit family in a small community, I’ve been able to see the impact I can potentially make. Not just kids younger than me, but everyone across the state of South Carolina. It’s been really rewarding to see the difference I can make.”
Rogers, who didn’t have a send-off party, a formality for departing crown holders, will learn where she places at the same time as TV viewers.
“We find out when they’re announcing it on live television,” Rogers said. “I mean, it’s live.”
Live TV. The camera is always on. That’s something organizers will undoubtedly drill into the contestants so they don’t forget and have a momentary decorum lapse that becomes a viral video.
Another thing contestants can’t forget is waterproof mascara, a cosmetic Miss America 2012 Laura Kaeppeler should’ve applied. As she was crowned, her tears smudged the mascara, giving her the appearance colloquially known as racoon eyes.
The look, which sparked an array of beauty-related rants online, was unforgettable.