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Byline: Don Terry
HOOPESTON, Ill. _ So you want to be Miss America.
You've been dreaming about that glittering crown since you were clomping around in your mother's high heels. You don't want to sound full of yourself or anything, but in your heart you know that with your talent and a couple of lucky breaks, you could be the chosen one: smiling and waving, gliding down the runway, your feet barely touching the floor, flashbulbs popping, parents in tears, Hollywood on the phone.
"There she is . . . " the familiar tune resonates in your head.
Then you wake up.
The fact is, you didn't even win your state pageant, which is what you have to do to get to Atlantic City and compete to be America's main Miss. You came close, though. Back home you were the first runner-up, maybe second. Or, if nothing went right that night, third.
Not bad. But runner-up doesn't get you to the Emerald City of the pageant world, and you're not ready to let your dream die. You've got to get that crown out of your mind and onto your head. So what do you do now?
If you're like generations of state pageant also-rans stretching back nearly half a century, you'll pack your bags and your hopes and head to the town of Hoopeston in the middle of Illinois' soybean and corn country.
Hoopeston, home to less than 6,000 people, is not much to look at. It's out of the way, too: about 120 miles south of Chicago and seven miles from the Indiana border. Once you arrive, a resident warns, expect some culture shock.
"There is no culture," she says. "We're lucky we've got a McDonald's."
But near the end of every summer, something special happens in Hoopeston. A chartered bus pulls into town, and a couple dozen young women from across the country descend on the normally quiet streets to compete for the title of National Sweetheart, the unofficial pageant of second chances.