Almost Miss America

COM alumna, Miss California, selected first runner-up

By Sophia DeFelice

Crystal Lee, our current Miss California, was first runner-up to becoming Miss America.

Crystal Lee, our current Miss California, was first runner-up to becoming Miss America.

They stand face-to-face, hands held tight, tensions mounting. Miss America 2014 is about to be crowned. The two finalists for America’s premier pageant hug each other. And whisper in each other’s ear.

Miss California wears an elegant long-sleeved, full-length lilac evening gown. Her silver studded cuffs sparkle. Miss New York wears a bright yellow evening gown with a plunging V neckline.

They appear to be best friends. The TV camera pans to the audience, where both sets of parents stand anxiously next to one another.

Chris Harrison, who also hosts “The Bachelor,” explains to viewers that the first runner up receives a $25,000 scholarship. And should anything happen to Miss America, the first runner up would carry out her duties.

Moments later, Harrison announces the winner – Miss New York, Nina Davuluri, the second year in a row that a contestant from the Empire State has won the competition.

The first runner-up is Miss California, Crystal Lee, a former College of Marin student and Stanford graduate. She’s also the daughter of Wendy Lee, an IT staff member here for 23 years.

As Crystal and Nina react to the news, the camera pans once again to their parents – the mothers of Miss California and Miss America hug and the dads shake hands. The genuine good will between the two finalists and their families is apparent.

The week prior to the nationally televised event is intense. The contestants compete for 15 finalist positions. And then there are the demanding rehearsals and publicity events. The competition is fierce.

“People don’t realize there really isn’t that much cattiness,” Crystal explains. “Behind the scenes there isn’t that much drama. At that level you get some really great young women who are just as beautiful on the inside as they are on the out-side.”

That’s the whole point of the inter-view process, she says.

“You not only find someone articulate and smart, but also someone who gives you a feeling of good character. Nina will do a great job as Miss America.”

Miss California kicks up her heels during a parade in Atlantic City, New Jersey, days before the nationally televised  Miss America contest.

Miss California kicks up her heels during a parade in Atlantic City, New Jersey, days before the nationally televised Miss America contest.

Crystal was born in San Francisco on August 2, 1991, to Wellman and Wendy Lee.

Her mom, Wendy, a system support technician in the Information Technology department here, immigrated in 1981 to the United States from Taiwan.

Her dad, Wellman, was born and raised in San Francisco’s Chinatown. He owned his own optical lab and manufactured eyeglasses for more than 30 years until last year.

The couple has been married for 24 years.

“I am the product of the quintes-sential American dream,” says the 22-year-old Miss California.

Her mother’s immigration experience left a particularly strong impression on Crystal.

“Immigrants come here and start fresh. Often having nothing but their willingness to work hard, and a tenacity to make it… To raise their children, and make a life for themselves.  The whole of idea of being American is different depending on who you ask. But it is important to remember the United States is built on the backs of im-migrants.”

Crystal is aware of how hard her parents worked and sacrificed to provide for the family.

“I didn’t have everything I wanted growing up,” Miss California says. “Little things informed me that certain people had things I didn’t.  At times, I felt sorry for myself. In retrospect, though, it’s a blessing to come from a modest background, because then the sky is the limit. I didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth.”

Crystal was uncertain about what she wanted to be as a young child.

“It would change from week to week. One day I would wake up and want to be a ballet dancer. Another day a teacher. Another day an astronaut, or a pilot.  Another day an inventor,” she says.

It had to do a lot with the role models around her.

“I still want to be an inventor. I want to create jobs,” says Miss California.

One of her goals is to run her own tech company.

According to her mom, Crystal’s involvement in pageants was not intentional.

“As a child Crystal was more of a tomboy. She liked to perform Tai Chi and Mulan fighters. She was always active, always moving. When we walked down the street, Crystal would take some steps and then do a cartwheel. She would repeat that process again and again. Cartwheels right there on the sidewalk!”

That’s when Wendy decided it was time to channel some of that energy. She enrolled Crystal in ballet classes when she was 4.

A dozen and a half years later her daughter would dance an en pointe to “The Swan” for the talent competition in Miss America.

Crystal attended high school at the San Francisco School of the Arts from 2005 to 2009. Her younger sister, Jasmine went there, too.

In the summer of 2006, Crystal at-tended a summer dance workshop taught by a COM instructor, Sandi Weldon. The class included hip-hop, ballroom dance, jazz and tap dance.

“Although Crystal was the youngest student in the class, her demeanor was very mature,” Weldon recalls. “She worked well with the other students who were all ages – teens, adults and even some seniors. We performed a recital of all of our dances on the last week of the course. While some of the older students were nervous or unpre-pared, Crystal was always calm, prepared, professional and a joy to work with.”

Crystal Lee, Miss California, and Nina Davuluri, Miss New York, await the announcement for the new Miss America.

Crystal Lee, Miss California, and Nina Davuluri, Miss New York, await the announcement for the new Miss America.

In 2008, while still in high school, Crystal took summer classes in Ballet and Statistics at COM’s Kentfield campus.

She found the community college experience rewarding and describes the College of Marin as “a Bay Area gem.”

And she’s proud that her mom works here.

“I am so grateful for mom’s job at the College of Marin,” she told The Echo Times. “It is common for people in the IT industry to constantly change companies. The fact that mom had a stable job allowed her to support me in all my extra-curricular activities, allowed her to come home after work and spend time with me and my sister. I never had to worry about our needs being met. That stability played a large role in the woman I am now.”

Her dad, Wellman Lee, encourages Crystal and her younger sister, Jasmine, to do what makes them happy.

“He was not always aware of who needed to be where while the girls were growing up,” Wendy Lee says with a smile. “But he was supportive.  I could not do it all by myself.”

Miss California knows the im-portance of hard work – not only in her personal life, but in providing community service and giving back. And she’s not a prima donna.

“When Crystal came home from Stanford during breaks,” her mother recalls, “she cleaned up the kitchen and bathrooms and did chores for me.”

And to keep fit, she’d even jog in the rain.

Long before she got the Miss Cali-fornia title, she considered herself “a California girl.”

The 5-foot-8 beauty queen, who maintains her weight at 125 to 130 pounds, thinks of herself as the girl next door.

“I love camping, backpacking and the outdoors,” Crystal says. “People don’t picture me with a backpack, but I love hiking.”

To stay fit, she does Pilates and takes ballet.

When she’s too busy to go to the gym, she goes on YouTube and puts on a home fitness workout and exercises in her room.

“It comes down to just doing it. You always feel better afterwards,” she says.

She loves watching movies, espe-cially Zombie movies.

But she doesn’t have much time to watch TV these days, and she doesn’t own one.

One of her favorites authors is English-Canadian journalist and bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell (“Outliers: The Story of Success”).

“I tend to read non-fiction and how-to books over fiction,” she says. “I liked ‘Getting to Yes’ (a guide to the art of negotiating).”

Her favorite food is sushi and sash-imi. Favorite desserts: bread pudding, cake and croissants. Her favorite types of music: pop, jazz and ambiance music.

Her favorite color is obvious to anyone who saw her compete in the Miss California and Miss America pageants. Her gown – worn in two competitions – was lilac, a shade of her favorite color, purple.

Crystal’s heroines include some powerful women. Marissa Mayer, CEO at Yahoo. Barbara Corcoran, an American businesswoman, investor, consultant, syndicated columnist, author, TV personali-ty and “Shark Tank” judge, whom Crystal regards as  “witty and shrewd.” And Sheryl Sandberg, author of “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.”

“And, of course, my mom is my everyday hero,” Crystal says. Every person’s parents should be their heroes. And my mom is mine. She’s the world to me. She’s given me everything, I’d have nothing without her.”

She says she’s very proud of her younger sister, Jasmine, who is a student at U.C. Berkeley. “I’m excited to see what she does after her schooling.”

Crystal was 16 when she entered her first pageant and won a $3,000 scholarship as San Francisco’s Miss Teen Chinatown in 2007. The competition involved the typical talent, gown, and a one-minute unrehearsed response to a question. Her mother realized then that Crystal could maintain her poise under pressure and speak convincingly in front of an audience.

Gowns, tiaras, sashes, public speaking engagements and public service soon replaced her tomboy ways. There would be many more crowning achievements. It was the beginning of her journey to Atlantic City’s Miss America pageant.

In 2008, Crystal became Miss Cali-fornia’s Outstanding Teen.

In 2010, she won Miss Chinatown.

In 2011, Miss San Francisco.

In 2013, she cashed in another chip:  Miss Silicon Valley.

Later that same year, this California girl became Miss California.

And in 2014, she was the 1st runner-up in the Miss America pageant – the last one standing on stage with Miss New York – the final two contestants vying for the title.

Although she didn’t win, she hopes to continue to inspire young girls to work hard to achieve their goals.

Her platform as Miss California this year is to encourage young girls to excel in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. STEM for short. It was in these male-dominated fields that her mother carved out her own niche.

“Getting into Stanford was my most rewarding accomplishment,” says Miss California, who completed her B.S. degree in Human Biology, and her master’s in Communications and Media Studies in four years.

Scholarship money from pageant competitions allowed her to pursue her dreams at one of the best and most expensive institutions of higher education in the country. Through it all she continued to study ballet professionally and travel.

In 2010, while still enrolled at Stanford, she flew to the coastal city of Jiang Men in China to compete in the Miss Chinese International Pageant. Crystal, who speaks Mandarin and Cantonese, competed with 10,000 contestants. That’s not a typo.

Nonetheless, in four days they nar-rowed the contestants down to 26 finalists. With odds of 10,000 to 1, Crystal was chosen 1st runner-up.

Crystal Lee performs a ballet en point to ‘The Swan’ during the recent Miss America pageant.

Crystal Lee performs a ballet en point to ‘The Swan’ during the recent Miss America pageant.

Lauren Smolka, a friend and fellow pageant competitor, met Crystal at the 2011 Miss California competi-tion in Fresno.

Crystal was competing as Miss Sil-icon Valley at the time, while Smolka was representing Hollywood.

“Crystal came up and said, I heard a lot about you. I think you’re gorgeous,”  Smolka recalls.

When the former COM student won this year’s Miss California title, Smolka says Crystal deserved to win.

Later, when Jovani Dress Design-ers contacted Smolka for a modeling assignment, she was excited to learn Crystal would be modeling for them, too.

The two women got to know each other on a deeper level and were able to bond during the week they spent modeling in Atlanta.

“It was great. Crystal is one of the most incredible people, I’ve ever met,” Smolka says.

As Crystal was preparing to leave for the Miss America Pageant in September, her friend gave her a black tote bag filled with essentials and goodies for the trip.

The one word that best describes her, Crystal says, is “grit.”

“Failures lead to success. You im-prove as you go along. It took me three tries to become Miss California. As much as people see me as a beauty queen and congratulate me on my successes, that’s what they see on the outside. Deep down there’s a lot of pushing and a lot of perseverance, a lot of grit. That will carry me for many years to come.”

Although a lot of men tune in to the Miss America pageant for the swimsuit competition, it is considered the most conservative “beauty” pageant.

It wasn’t until 1997 that the two-piece swimsuit competition was introduced to the pageant. That year a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist quipped, “The nation is finally going to get to contemplate the contestants’ navels. I can’t wait.

“Some women are bound to greet the news with a huff of scorn,” the columnist wrote. “They’ll say all it does is expose a teeny-weeny bit more of the pageant’s hypocrisy. They’ve always believed it was a blatant babe-a-thon.”

The Miss America Pageant continues to grapple with that stereotype.

Although the Miss America Organ-ization claims they want to show women with depth and range, the swimsuit competition, which counts for 20 percent of a contestant’s final score, continues to be a point of controversy.

“I think pageants are very feminist. I’m a feminist,” says Crystal. “I take advantage of the fact I can go on stage in a swimsuit and that I have the choice to be able to do so.

“Everyone tries to look as slim as possible for the telecast,” she recently told the Echo Times. “Each contestant exercises intensely for the pageant. The camera adds 10 pounds. I expect to gain weight in the next few weeks. I know it’s going to happen. I’m comfortable with that. The two-piece shows all the hard work we put in, all the sit-ups, all the weight training. Might as well flaunt all the hard work.”

Concerned about the way young girls are pressured by the media to look thin, Crystal recalls her teen years.

“Appearance is important. It’s so intricately tied into your self-esteem. To be totally honest with you, I put more effort into how I looked in middle school than I do now… In middle school, looks were incredibly important, which ties into insecurity… often as a result of media messages.”

Between her junior and sophomore years in college, Crystal met her boyfriend, a Stanford Political Science major, and things began to change.

“I started worrying less about how I looked and caring more about my future in terms of what I needed to know,” the former COM student says. “It’s not how you look, it’s what you know.”

Crystal has worked hard at both.

“Now,” she says, “two years later, I could definitely say I’ve become more confident because he is in my life.

“People ask him, ‘how does it feel to be dating Miss California?  Are you Mr. California?’

“He responds, ‘I’m dating Crystal, first and foremost. Miss California is a part it. I love her for who she is, even if she never won a pageant in her life.’

“When I take my make-up off he says ‘welcome back’ in a really cute way,” Crystal says.

“He’s a great guy. I encourage all women out there to go for someone who adds value to your life – someone you want to spend time with because he makes you feel good about yourself. I love my boyfriend because he brings out the best in me.”

A week after the Miss America pageant, Crystal reflects on how close she came winning.

“Once you are in the top two it’s just a blessing to be there. It’s a win-win. Part of me still wants the job of Miss America.  But, you just have to let go and let God. There is a reason behind everything that happens. America saw me do my thing on TV, but the judges in the end made the decision. I’m happy.

“I plan to live the rest of my life as an ambassador of the Miss America scholarship program,” Miss California says.

Crystal returned home to California in mid-September with a $30,000 in prizes – a $5,000 STEM scholarship, which supports her platform, and $25,000 for winning 1st runner-up.

For Crystal it is clear. “The more academic achievements and good will service we do, the more people realize Miss America is a scholar-ship program.

“If I leave this world knowing that there are more women in the science, technology, engineering and math fields, it’s a legacy I’d be happy to leave.  Women should know there are opportunities out there, they just need to grab them.”

In the mean time, Crystal continues to fulfill her duties as a spokeswoman for the Miss California Organization, and its sponsor, the American Pistachio Growers. Last year, Miss California traveled abroad with them.

“It’s a big job,” Crystal says. “I represent the melting pot that is our nation, and I am very proud. I’m going to be the face of the program for the next 10 months.

“I’m really excited. There’s no better state to come home to after Miss America. The rest remains unwritten.”

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