The past six months of 17-year-old Kara Merrill's life have been packed with activity. She completed her last semester of high school, was named the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce's Outstanding Student of the Year, graduated valedictorian from Soldotna High School and, like most people her age, is preparing for college.
Oh, and she won the Alaska Junior Miss competition in January and has spent the last 10 days in Mobile, Ala., getting ready to compete against the brightest and most talented teen girls from the other 49 states for the title of America's Junior Miss.
The America's Junior Miss Scholarship Program will air locally on TNN, cable channel 37, at 8 p.m. today. The two-hour program will repeat at 11 p.m. on Saturday.
"This has been wonderful. A blast," Kara said Monday afternoon from the green room in the Mobile Civic Center, where the contestants are preparing for the telecast.
"There have been a lot of rehearsals, lots of blocking for the stage," she said. "We had the first preliminaries yesterday and the second tonight, and then we have to re-hearse for the finals."
"I don't think Kara has butterflies in her stomach," said her mother, Sharon, from her hotel room in Mobile Tuesday. "But we're anxious for her one final time on stage."
The two preliminary rounds split the girls into two groups. Sunday, Kara participated in the fitness and poise competitions, which involved an eight-minute aerobic exercise dance routine and then what is essentially an evening gown competition.
"But we don't call them evening gowns, because this isn't a pageant," Kara said. "We call them 'poise' gowns."
All the contestants had interviews with judges on Friday and Saturday.
Monday night she performed in the talent competition singing and dancing to "Stepping Out" by Irving Berlin.
"Her voice wavered a bit, but I think only her parents noticed," said Sharon Merrill. "But we could tell she was really going for it."
Sharon Merrill said the other contestants were very talented, and some had experience in national and international competition.
"There are many, many outstanding pianists and singers who could step right out on Broadway and not miss a beat," she said. "Watching these girls is like you bought a ticket to a show on Broadway.
"It brings back how little Alaska is. Some opportunities are just not available."
The scores from the interviews on Friday and Saturday, combined with the scores from the two nights of preliminaries Sunday and Monday, will determine the top eight who will compete for the crown. However, none of the contestants will know who the final eight are until after the show begins tonight.
Kara was the first contestant to arrive and only after the first rehearsal was able to get some sleep -- 30 hours after she left Kenai.
"I haven't had too much sleep since. They are running us ragged every day," she said. "We work all day and play all night."
Kara said the most challenging aspect of the competition has been learning so many musical and dance numbers in such a short time.
Kara was indecisive about competing in Alaska's Junior Miss competition, held in Soldotna. She filed just before the deadline. She's happy now she did.
"It's such a wonderful opportunity. It's become my whole life," she said. "I'm making friends here I know I'm going to stay in touch with forever and ever.
"There are so many opportunities for young girls here. I'm very happy I was talked into it."
Her mother said before she knew that America's Junior Miss was not a beauty pageant, she wasn't thrilled that her daughter was considering competing. She's since changed her mind.
"This has been a really worthwhile experience for her. She's spread her wings and broadened her horizons," Sharon Merrill said. "She's had so many opportunities to meet wonderful people and see a different part of the country.
Kara is the latest in a long line of Kenai Peninsula contestants who have competed for America's Junior Miss title. They include Judy Moore, Kenai, 1973; Sherry Taylor, Kenai, 1975; Kim Roerig, Kenai, 1982; Jenni Lynn, Kenai,1987; Joslyn Tinker, Soldotna, 1994; Hillary Moore, Kasilof, 1997; Holly Pomeroy, Nikiski, 1998; and Tesa Allemann, Kenai, 1999.
Tinker later became Miss Alaska and was a finalist in the Miss America Pageant.
Kara plans on attending Clark Honors College at the University of Oregon in Eugene. She will study broadcast journalism and will follow in the footsteps of television reporters Diane Sawyer of Good Morning America, Deborah Norville of Inside Edition and Julie Bryan Moran of Entertainment Tonight, all who competed in America's Junior Miss.
The young woman who is named America's Junior Miss tonight will receive $50,000; first runner-up $25,000; second runner-up $15,000; and the other five finalists $3,000 each. The contestants also are competing for an additional $40,000 in the preliminary categories.
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