Future med student works the beauty pageant circuit

by Kelsey Blodget | 8/1/06 5:00am

In her quest to stand out from her peers in the hyper-competitive medical school application process, Cece Zhang '08 has turned to an unconventional route: beauty pageants. Zhang was named America's National Sweetheart 3rd runner-up and Miss Academic Achievement 2007 on July 23 in Nashville, Tenn.

"People who apply to med schools don't usually do this kind of thing," Zhang said.

Zhang isn't banking on pageants alone to get her accepted, though, and is currently working in the immunology lab at Dartmouth Medical School. Zhang has been helping conduct laboratory research since age 14, and published her first research paper at 16.

When Zhang read an article about a Massachusetts Institute of Technology student who said she got into her top-choice school because of her pageant experience, Zhang first thought of entering beauty pageants herself.

"That's what they said helped her get in," Zhang said. She felt the same could work for her medical school applications. Since Zhang will turn 19 this November, she still qualifies for many of the competitions reserved for teens between 15 and 18 years old.

Zhang has participated in four pageants since she began competing in October, and has placed every time. After her first contest, New Hampshire's Miss Teen USA competition, she was named second runner-up out of 2,000 girls. She was later named first runner-up for Miss National Teenager, and won the Miss New Hampshire National Sweetheart title before moving on to nationals. Zhang plans to participate in the Miss America and Miss USA pageants in the future, but with MCATs approaching she currently doesn't

she won't have time to continue competing.

The prize money is another incentive to compete -- so far Zhang has won $20,000 in college scholarship money. Entering the contests can get quite expensive, however, and a number of companies have helped offset the costs by sponsoring Zhang, among them Hanover clothing boutique NV.

"They gave me $1,200 to go to nationals," Zhang said. "Nationals for me cost $2,000, $3,000 with hotel and flight."

Zhang is more frugal than some of the other contestants, who pay exorbitant amounts of money for dresses and coaches in hopes that it will help them win.

A contestant on the third season of Project Runway, Kayne Gillaspie, designs dresses for a lot of the girls, Zhang said. She noted that he's become more expensive since his Project Runway fame and she knows a girl who paid $2,000 for one of his dresses.

"The girls always get that guy to design their dresses," Zhang said. "You're supposed to paint your jeans yourself for the paint your jeans competition, but they hire that guy to paint their jeans too. That's not fair."

Zhang said she has almost never spent more than $100 on a dress.

"For my first competition I got a $29 dollar dress from smartbargains.com," Zhang said. "I beat out all the girls with the expensive dresses. They're not looking at how much your dress is, they're looking at how you wear the dress."

Zhang cited another incident in which a contestant who had competed in the Miss Teen USA contest for three years hired a company called Built 2 Win to help her lose weight.

"She was a size two already, when she got down to a size zero or double zero she didn't even look good in her swim suit. She went from first runner-up to fourth runner-up," Zhang said.

Zhang herself said she eats healthily and exercises daily before the competitions that include swimsuit modeling.

"When you're on stage all of you is showing -- you can't jiggle up there," she said.

Zhang described the competitions as "pretty stressful." Tensions run high among contestants, and Zhang said she saw one girl crying backstage after failing to place. Zhang, for the most part, has been impressed with her "incredibly gorgeous" contenders, but sometimes competition turns dirty.

"I heard a couple of years ago about a girl who got her boobs stolen at the Teen USA competition," Zhang said, referring to the silicon inserts females use to pad their swimsuit tops. "The Teen USA girls are a lot meaner than the National Teenager girls."

Despite the sometimes less-than-friendly competition, Zhang said she has bonded with several of the girls and celebrates with them after competitions.

"We go out and have a fast food pig out," Zhang said. "We go to KFC and buy a huge family-sized portion of chicken."

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