Published April 24, 2011, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/High Profile
As first runnerup in the Miss America Pageant, Alyse Eady has been the toast of the talk shows with her yodeling ventriloquism act. She is now moving on to her next act — an anchor at KTHV, Channel 11.
BY RHONDA OWEN
Beautiful, impeccably groomed, poised and well-spoken, Miss Arkansas Alyse Eady is exactly what you’d expect in a pageant queen. But, still, there’s something about her that’s unexpected. You sense it, but can’t quite put a finger on it.
It could be her genuine manner, unaffected despite the perfection of her persona. Maybe it’s that the 23-year-old possesses a light, youthful spirit while also displaying mature confidence. Perhaps it’s her warm engaging manner that draws you in. Or it could be that when she asks a question, she leans forward to hear your answer.
Maybe it’s all of these things. Whatever it is, Eady’s appeal extends from wide-eyed innocents who see her as a fairy-tale princess to cynics who consider the pageant system a less than charming anachronism.
Some even see this young woman from Fort Smith as the antidote to negative stereotypes about beauty queens. Case in point: MSNBC’s hard-nosed news anchor Rachel Maddow, who interviewed Eady on her Feb. 11 show.
“Meeting you … it made me feel bad about being snarky and cynical about beauty pageants,” said Maddow, who gushingly described Eady’s appearance as “pure happiness” and labeled the segment “Moment of Joy.”
Whatever Maddow had expected, Eady — unruffled, focused and naturally charming — wasn’t it. Her first words to Eady were, “I don’t believe you’re real.”
But she is real — there it is. Childhood friend Haley Ray describes Eady as “the kind of person who will never say anything bad about anyone else. But at the same time, she’s very honest.”
When talking with Eady, you can’t help but wonder what the 2011 Miss America Pageant judges could have been thinking when they bypassed her to crown Teresa Scanlan, the 17-year- old Miss Nebraska.
But Eady neither wonders nor cares. She believes not winning has given her the best of both worlds — national recognition as first runnerup and the ability to continue representing her state as Miss Arkansas. Also, as first runner-up, she avoids the obligations that accompany the Miss America crown.
As Miss Arkansas, Eady was already a celebrity in her home state. But after her impressive showing at Miss America, she attained an almost star status. Consider this: Since the Miss America pageant Jan. 15, the youtube.com video of Eady’s yodeling ventriloquism act — singing Patsy Montana’s “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart” with two puppets — has logged nearly 473,000 views. In contrast, total views for the video of Scanlan’s crowning are less than 100,000.
Being recognized everywhere she goes, having more Facebook friend requests than she can accept (she’s near the 5,000 limit and has about as many pending) and appearing on Late Night With David Letterman as well as on MSNBC and Inside Edition can be a heady experience for the daughter of an insurance salesman and a speech pathologist in small-city Arkansas.
But she doesn’t find it hard to be humble.
“I have to remember that it’s not because I’m Alyse,” Eady says of the attention she receives. “It’s because I’m Miss Arkansas. It’s because of the position that I’m in. That helps keep it in perspective.”
TIME WITH MOM
Many beauty pageant contestants devote their childhood and teen years to the dream of becoming Miss America.
For Eady, pageant competition was only one of many interests during her childhood. Her first pageant wasn’t planned, but simply happened.
“We were at the mall shopping,” recalls her mother, Lady Eady. “There was this contest and a lady there said, ‘Give me $25 and you can enter.’ Alyse had on a fluffy yellow dress and her hair in two ponytails, so I just put her up on stage. She placed third. She was only 2 then.”
Afterward, Lady Eady says, she wondered how well her daughter could do if she were actually prepared. For a second pageant, she dressed Alyse in a fancy purple dress with hand-sewn detailing and carefully styled her hair. Alyse won the overall title, taking home her first prize — a white rabbit-fur coat.
Alyse went on to win many more pageants, impressing judges by singing “On the Good Ship Lollipop,” “9-to-5,” and, at age 4, Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” — “her favorite,” Lady Eady says.
Pageants weren’t a motivation in themselves, Eady and her mother say. Pageants gave them a shared interest, just as older brothers Martin and Scott shared an interest in sports with her father, Lewis.
Eady points out that the pageants in which she was involved weren’t like those depicted on TLC’s Toddlers and Tiaras, a reality show focused on little girls wearing heavy makeup and sporting spray-on tans.
She and her mother carefully chose pageants that focused on more than appearance.
“For us, it was about finding one where they cared more about how we were able to interact with the judges than how we looked, and where they cared more about our personalities than our wardrobes.”
She laughs, recalling her modest wardrobe. “Most of my dresses came from J.C. Penney’s. I was a national pageant winner for Our Diamond Miss National Supreme in a dress from Penney’s. And I had buck teeth.
“It’s funny to look back on that now, but it was a lot of fun, those years with my mother.”
When Eady was 8, her interest in pageants waned and didn’t pick up again until late in her teens.
“I gave up pageants for several years and was just a normal student,” Eady says. “I focused on academics, gymnastics and cheerleading. I also started competing in talent competitions, which enabled me to really master ventriloquism and focus on that skill.
“Pageants have never consumed my life and I had a very normal childhood.”
Eady’s interest in ventriloquism — “just one of those weird things that I like” — surfaced at age 9, after she saw another girl performing a ventriloquism act.
“It instantly captivated me because I had never seen it before,” Eady says.
Lady Eady says she initially was skeptical about her daughter’s new interest as well as her ability to master it.
“We were riding in the car and she just out of the blue told me she wanted to be a ventriloquist,” Lady Eady recalls. “I was so surprised and said, ‘You can’t do ventriloquism.’ But then she started talking with her teeth together so I thought, well, maybe she could do it.”
Eady taught herself by watching tapes of ventriloquist Shari Lewis. Lady Eady drew on her experience as a speech pathologist to help her daughter learn to speak clearly without moving her mouth.
“My mother was able to help a lot,” Eady says. “Different sounds are hard to do in ventriloquism. When we talk, we move our lips on letters like B, P, L, M, O. You learn to mix letters and make substitute sounds to make it work.”
After practicing for a few months, she entered and won a talent contest at the Sebastian County Fair using a fuzzy dog puppet whose arms wrap around her neck. Eady still uses “Loreen” occasionally; it was one of two puppets she used in the Miss Teen Arkansas Pageant in 2004 with an act in which she sang, yodeled, clog danced and did ventriloquism. Her song then, as in the Miss America pageant, was ”I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart.”
She learned the song when she was 9 and, while it’s the song she’s known for, she has a repertoire of 15 others. On Rachel Maddow’s show, she demonstrated as much by singing — with pigtailed puppet Rosie — snippets of Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere,” Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya,” and Patsy Montana’s “If Only I Could Learn to Yodel.”
In addition to Loreen and Rosie, Eady has 12 other puppets. Rosie, one of her pageant “children,” accompanied her when she attended Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, from which she graduated in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in mass communication.
At OBU, Eady was a typical student, studying hard while also immersing herself in service and social projects, says friend Andrew Ford.
During her spare time, she volunteered with the Big Brothers and Big Sisters mentoring program. Eady was also hostess for the school’s annual talent show/fundraiser, Tiger Tunes. She sang and danced, but did not do ventriloquism.
In fact, puppet Rosie rarely left the closet, Ford says.
“Alyse was a good old Ouachita student — with a puppet in her closet,” he says. “We begged her all the time to bring Rosie out, but she was shy about performing. It was so funny. She wouldn’t do anything for a small group, but she’d get out in front of hundreds of people.”
Eady explains that she didn’t mix her entertainment and pageant life with her college life.
“I’ve always been very private when it comes to talking about the entertainment aspect of my life,” she says, noting that many of her friends didn’t know she was a ventriloquist until they found her Miss Teen Arkansas video online.
“I love performing on stage, but when I’m not on stage, you’ll never see me showing others my talent. It’s part of who I am, but I don’t like to be defined by it.”
WORKING WITH KIDS
Among the service projects she focused on in college was the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, in which she had been involved since she was 5 years old — first as a participant, then as a volunteer and eventually as an employee. The organization was highlighted in her platform for Miss Arkansas and Miss America.
In 2008, she was a national finalist for the organization’s Youth of the Year award. That gave her the opportunity to spend a summer working with Boys and Girls Clubs at American military bases in Germany and Turkey.
“I did everything from help to keep the clubs clean to bringing the Smart Girls program to them,” Eady says. “I got to know the kids. I played bumper pool with them. I learned volleyball so I could teach the volleyball seminar. Those were all things that put me outside my comfort zone, but the kids didn’t care. They cared that I was there and wanted to spend time with them.”
‘DON’T BE AFRAID TO SHINE’
Until a few weeks ago, Eady believed her year as Miss Arkansas would segue into attending graduate school at Columbia University, where she would study journalism. After getting her master’s degree, she hoped to work in public relations for the Boys and Girls Clubs.
But on March 30, KTHV, Channel 11, announced that Eady had been hired as coanchor of Today’s THV This Morning program. The job officially begins Aug. 1, although she will appear on the show periodically until then.
The job offer came as a complete surprise, Eady says, but it’s an opportunity she couldn’t pass up. In fact, she’s been amazed at how many opportunities have come her way since the Miss America Pageant, among them the chance to perform with ventriloquist Terry Fator in Las Vegas in March.
Although she will be working next year instead of going to graduate school, she says she fully intends to continue her education — “maybe closer to home” — and use the nearly $48,000 in scholarship money she’s received from the Miss Arkansas and Miss America pageants.
Eady points out that the Miss Arkansas organization gives its winner a larger scholarship award than any pageant organization in the United States except Miss America. The Ted and Shannon Skokos Foundation provides a $20,000 scholarship for the pageant winner.
Eady considers it part of her job to promote the scholarship aspect of the Miss Arkansas and Miss America pageants. She also sees herself as an ambassador for Arkansas and a role model for children.
“It absolutely does not matter where you start. It matters where you finish. Don’t be afraid to shine.” She says that if she had listened to those who advised her to leave her ventriloquism act at home when she went to the Miss America pageant, her situation now would be very different.
“I stayed true to myself and wasn’t afraid to be an individual. That’s what I owe my success to.”