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Meet the woman who beat Sarah Palin to become Miss Alaska

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It’s been 24 years since singer Maryline Blackburn won the Miss Alaska pageant. Yet she remembers all too well the day she hugged and said good-bye to 14 other young women who were vying for the same title. One of those women was Sarah Heath, who would go on to become governor of Alaska and Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin. Blackburn, who now lives in Atlanta, spoke with ESSENCE.com about being the first Black woman to represent Alaska at the Miss America pageant, competing against an intensely focused young Palin and why Palin won’t be getting her vote in November.  

ESSENCE.COM: What was it like growing up Black in Alaska?
I moved to Alaska when I was about seven years old. My dad was in the army and we moved around a lot. Growing up there was quite different. Most kids don’t get to see wildlife roaming in streets or wake up to a moose roaming outside your back door, but it was just a part of our [everyday] life. We really didn’t look at race in Alaska. When you’re in the military, doing so much traveling, you just become well rounded.

ESSENCE.COM: How did you begin competing in beauty pageants?
One of my high school teachers knew that I wanted to go to college. I’d always say, being one of seven kids, I didn’t think my parents could afford to send me. She suggested that I compete in pageants as a great way to receive scholarship money. So I started when I was 16 years old and did it for the next seven years.

ESSENCE.COM: What was it like competing for the Miss Alaska title?
It was an interesting experience. It was an opportunity for me to showcase my talent. I started playing the piano when I was younger and became classically trained. I sang and played the piano in my first pageant. The whole process helped me with my self-esteem. Before that, I just felt unsure of myself. It also let people see I’m a rather intelligent woman.

ESSENCE.COM: You’re the first Black woman to ever win Miss Alaska. How does it feel to hold that title?
It was an honor, especially to know that for many African-American women who had been trying to do it, I was the one who actually broke that barrier. It was wonderful to be able to go to Miss America and compete with six other beautiful Black women that year.

ESSENCE.COM: When did you meet Sarah Palin (née Heath)?
The first time I met her was in 1984 when I spent an entire week with her and 14 other girls preparing for the Miss Alaska pageant. She was very nice, always smiling, and I remember she had a great sense of humor. But you could tell when Sarah was in deep thought. I attributed it to her way of sizing up the competition. She always had this look in her eye like [she was thinking]: What’s my next move and how am I going to win this?

ESSENCE.COM: Did you think of her as real competition?
Sarah was in my top five and I actually expected her to win because she had that poise and the look that the judges wanted in a Miss Alaska. Honestly, it was also the year after Vanessa [Williams] had won and given up her title, so I thought they wouldn’t select another African-American woman to be Miss America.

ESSENCE.COM: Were you surprised when you heard John McCain had chosen her as his running mate?
I was very surprised, excited and ecstatic for her and what this means for women. I always thought I would see Sarah on television as a commentator, journalist or sports reporter. That’s what she talked about doing. She never talked about politics or her own beliefs.

ESSENCE.COM: Will she make a good vice-president?
Let’s just say, I won’t be voting for her. I don’t feel as though she’s ready to assume that role or the presidency if she’s ever put into that situation. But everyone has to investigate and find out about her for himself or herself. My hope is that by November 4, all of this is worked out and the right person will be in office.  

ESSENCE.COM: Does that mean you think the right person is Senator Obama?
I believe that he’s aware of what’s really happening in our country. He listens, understands and knows it’s about the people and making a change. Barack Obama and Joe Biden are the change that we need.

ESSENCE.COM: You developed a music career after your pageant career ended. What are you up to now?
Competing in the Miss America pageant afforded me the opportunity to travel with the Department of Defense and Bob Hope’s USO. I was performing with Peabo Bryson when I decided to truly pursue a [solo] singing career. I’ve had three CDs and I’m working on my latest, “The M Line Project,” which should be finished by February next year.

For more information on “The M Line Project”, visit marylineblackburn.com