Editor's Note: CMT will air the Miss America 2006 pageant Saturday (Jan. 21) at 8 p.m. ET.
After passing along her sparkling crown, Miss America 2005 Diedre Downs will take a few months off before starting medical school in August. "There's a little bit of a break, and then it gets crazy again," she says. But in the meantime, the former Miss Alabama discusses this year's back-to-basics approach at the Las Vegas pageant, meeting country stars on the red carpet at the CMA Awards and a special moment with a dazzled young fan.
CMT: What can people expect from the pageant this year?
Downs: I think it's great that we're moving back to more of the glamour that Miss America has had in the past. It's going back to the traditional pageant. They've eliminated the casual wear and the quiz show segment. Those are things that in the past few years have been added to try to make it more of a reality-type show. I think the great thing about this year with CMT, we are moving back to being that traditional pageant that capitalizes on what we do best -- the glamour, the talent, the evening gown, the interview. All the things that make Miss America, Miss America.
Looking back on 2005, what do you remember most about your reign?
The travel. (laughs) I mean, every two or three days, I was on a plane to a different city. I lived in hotel rooms. It's just incredible because you go from appearance to appearance, and most of it is centered around your platform. I did a lot of children's hospital visits. I was the national spokesperson for CureSearch, which is the national childhood cancer foundation. I did some lobbying with them on Capitol Hill for increased funding for cancer. Anything from that to a celebrity Go-Kart race at the Super Bowl. It runs the gamut. That's what's great about it.
With your platform of childhood cancer, you must have met some really incredible young people last year. What are some lessons you learned from those encounters?
I've been doing volunteer work with childhood cancer for seven or eight years now. These kids go through more adversity than most adults ever have to face, and they do it with such resilience. It's very inspiring. You see these kids of all ages with such incredible odds stacked against them. But they have great attitudes. It's pretty humbling, pretty incredible, when you meet them. ... Especially little girls. Little girls are so enamored of princesses and that kind of thing, so it's especially neat with little girls. They want to try on the crown.
What's the most common reaction when you're introduced to people as Miss America?
If it's an appearance, people want autographs. They want to take a picture with you. That sort of thing. There have been other times when I've been off the road and I've been on vacation or something, and it comes up that I'm Miss America -- especially on a plane. Somebody asks me, "So, what do you do?" (laughs) Usually when you tell them, they're like, "Really!" In the past few years, perhaps we haven't done as good a job in marketing ourselves to stay out there in the spotlight, but people still have this perception of Miss America. It still has prestige and that tradition behind it. I think people are surprised when -- "My gosh, I'm meeting Miss America!" People will be like, "Hang on, right there! I want you to leave a message on my friend's phone." (laughs) It's pretty much celebrity status.
Did you meet any country stars during your reign?
I went to the CMAs and walked the red carpet, so I met several of them there. Let's see, I did the Children's Miracle Network telethon and met Billy Dean and Tracy Byrd and LeAnn Rimes there. Of course, Tim McGraw and the other folks on the red carpet at the CMAs. I love country music, so it was neat to get to meet all these people.
What was the most surprising thing that happened to you as Miss America?
I don't know if there's one moment. I know there was a really neat moment with kids this year. I went to a summer camp for kids with cancer. This may give you another sense of the celebrity side of it and people's disbelief at getting to meet Miss America. At this summer camp for kids with cancer in Alabama, they had told the kids there was going to be a big party, a big celebration, on the final day. When I got there, they had not told the kids I was coming, so they said, "Here she is, Diedre Downs, Miss America!" I walked out, I had the crown on and this little girl in the front row, her eyes got so big. And she was like, "Are you real?" (laughs) It was neat.