Sunday, April 06, 2008

Miss USA crown within reach for Baldwin native 

Posted by Sasha at 5:55 PM ET

By William West
Thursday, April 3, 2008
Pittsburgh Live

LauRen Merola's run as a beauty queen nearly ended just as it was getting started.

The Baldwin Borough native first competed in a pageant for 2- and 3-year-olds at Soldiers & Sailors Military Museum and Memorial in Oakland. She won, but never had a chance to wear the crown.

Merola's mother, Dana, said the speaker system stopped working before the winners were announced, leading to mayhem. Parents stormed the stage and stole awards.

"I swore to never do pageants again," she said.

But this month, Merola will take the stage for the big game -- the April 11 Miss USA Pageant in Las Vegas.

As a girl, she watched the national beauty pageants and longed to try again. She had the training -- practicing several forms of dance since age 4 -- and the looks. She also had the attitude: Her mother said LauRen would grab people's faces and turn them if they weren't watching her.

When she was in eighth grade, Merola and her family moved to South Florida. It was there that she began competing in pageants again.

Now, at 23, Merola is Miss Pennsylvania.

"I'd put all my chips on her," said Jennifer Watkins Vinsick, who serves as manager for the Miss Pennsylvania, Miss West Virginia and Miss Indiana competitions.

Merola met with Vinsick at Pennsylvania's pageant headquarters, located in a home on Driftwood Road in Brownsville, to try on her evening gown for the national pageant.

When she came out with the dress on, there was no "Ta-da!" moment. Instead, it was right down to business. Vinsick, who was Miss Pennsylvania 2001, snapped a photo of Merola, and the duo began analyzing how the dress matched her recently highlighted, lowlighted and toned hair.

Merola had spent almost four hours earlier that day with stylist Ken Zana at Dean of Shadyside Salon getting rid of the "skunk strip," or highlights with dark roots, on her head.

Merola studies every facet of competition like a television football analyst -- a job she wouldn't mind having one day. She was a cheerleader for the Miami Dolphins for three years and developed a habit professional football players practice -- video review. She studies previous pageant winners to figure out what works.

"I'm not your typical pageant girl," Merola said.

With the looks, the competitive drive and a worldly knowledge -- Merola visited Bosnia, Hong Kong, Vienna and Kosovo while working with the United Service Organization as a Dolphins cheerleader -- she believes the pearl-adorned Miss USA crown is within her grasp.

"I know I'm ready for the job," she said.

[LauRen as Miss PA]

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