BY JENNIFER NEFF
LaVern Cameron watched her daughter Caressa cry onstage, clutching a bouquet of pink roses, wearing her newest crown and sash, as she accepted the title of Miss Virginia after four attempts.
Sitting in the audience Saturday in Roanoke, LaVern Cameron remembered the words of a past pageant judge:
"Ma'am, I don't know who you are, but your daughter is going to be Miss America one day. I've never met someone with so much wisdom at the age of 14."
That was seven years ago. Since then, Caressa Cameron, a 21-year-old Spotsylvania native, has competed in 10 pageants and won eight titles. Now she's poised for a run at the Miss America title in January.
The Miss America crown has a been a lifelong dream, but Cameron's long-term goal is to promote AIDS awareness and to help her community. Since Cameron was able to speak, she has wanted to compete in the Miss America pageant.
She entered her first pageant, fittingly named called Someday I'll Be Miss America, at age 7 and won the title, while also winning something in all categories.
"It scared me. It was new. 'How do I shape her, groom her for this?' I'd think to myself," LaVern Cameron said. "But doors opened for her, and it's not because I wanted it. It's because it was the plan that God wanted for her."
'A FIERCE COMPETITOR'
After winning Miss Fredericksburg Fair in 2005, Cameron won Miss Greater Springfield, Miss Chesterfield, Miss Hanover and Miss Arlington.
"She's a fierce competitor. I can definitely see her going far, even if it weren't for the pageants," said Kimberly Updike, co-director of the Miss Fredericksburg Fair Pageant.
Though she has spent countless hours trying on evening gowns, preparing for potential interview questions and rehearsing her song for the talent portion, Cameron has made plenty of time to visit several area schools to promote her platform "Real Talk: AIDS in America."
"I just wanted to let people know that the disease is still around," Cameron said.
AIDS EDUCATION HER GOAL
Cameron lost an uncle and family foster child to AIDS when she was 8. "I saw the emotional and physical toll this disease had on those affected and those close to the person," she said.
A few years after the deaths, Cameron approached her mom about being involved in AIDS/HIV prevention. Since then, she has been the youth coordinator of the FACES project--Fighting the AIDS Crisis with Education and Support--a nonprofit group her mother started in 2001.
Cameron spoke to students about AIDS prevention and abstinence at Riverbend and Courtland high schools and at her alma mater, Massaponax High School, where she graduated in 2005.
"As pageant queens, we have the influence to help shape young people's characters and major decisions," Cameron said.
When she isn't visiting schools, Cameron takes part in Children's Miracle Network telethons, lends a hand at the Boys and Girls Clubs and makes USO appearances. She also had the honor of attending two inaugural balls as Miss Arlington.
"She just puts her whole heart toward the community," Updike said.
Next fall would be the beginning of Cameron's senior year at VCU, where she studies communications in the hope of becoming a broadcast journalist.
But her title puts her education on hold. Cameron expects to log more than 75,000 miles and meet more than 50,000 people this year while visiting communities in and around the state. As Cameron excitedly discussed plans for the Miss America Pageant in Las Vegas in January, she quickly remembered her current purpose.
"My main focus right now is to be Miss Virginia," she said. "It's important to do the best job I can as the current title holder."
Jennifer Neff: 540/374-5000, ext. 5617