WTVM Special Report: Before the Crown

WTVM Special Report: Before the Crown

COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) - Before becoming world famous, she was just a small town girl.

"We just saw her a just Betty."

And now she's Miss America!

Georgia is celebrating its first Miss America in 62 years. Betty Cantrell was crowned in Atlantic City just two months ago.

She recently returned to Columbus where she was crowned Miss Georgia for a big welcome home celebration.

So what was she like before her big win? We traveled to Macon and Warner Robbins to find out all about Betty Cantrell "Before the Crown."

After more than six decades, the title of Miss America comes back to Georgia. Warner Robbins' own Betty Cantrell claimed the coveted crown last September, something that hadn't happened for a Miss Georgia since 1953.

Though the judges were wowed by Cantrell, especially her operatic performance.

The 21-year-old Mercer University student says she was shocked when they called her name.

"It was crazy. I did not think it was going to be me," Cantrell said. "So I was really shocked, very surprised and just so happy that it was real."

But Cantrell says it wasn't until her appearance on ABC's Kelly and Michael a couple of days later that the reality of it all sunk in.

"They were like, okay, we're getting ready to bring out Miss America and then they played the little clip of me winning and I watched on TV and I was like oh my God they're bringing me out, I'm Miss America....it was crazy," Cantrell said.

It's been a crazy whirlwind of a reign ever since for Cantrell. She travels some 20,000 miles each month making public appearances, visiting schools and working to inspire sick children at Children's Miracle Network hospitals across the country.

We recently caught up with her as she visited children at Midtown Medical Center.

"If I can put a smile on their faces, that means the world to me and hopefully I leave as big an impact on them as they leave on me," Cantrell said.

But before the crown, Cantrell was a student at Mt. De Sales Academy in Macon. Her teachers say in many ways, Betty was a typical student, but when it came to her talent, there was nothing typical about that at all.

"To me, she was one of the best students I ever had," said John Freeman.

Freeman directed Betty in all of her theater productions at Mt. De Sales beginning in 9th grade. He says Betty "came alive" whenever she walked on stage.

"Stage was her presence, her thing that she wanted to do," Freeman said. "Betty has a national intuitive instinct when she gets on stage, she's able to just take whatever is going to happen and she deals with immediately on the spot as it goes."

He also remembers a time on stage when things didn't turn out quite like Betty had planned, like when she insisted on using a "real dog" as Toto when she starred as Dorothy in the school's production of the Wizard of Oz.

"She just thought the realism was going to make it great...but that dog was all over the place, they were afraid what the dog was going to do. She was always trying to keep a hold of the dog and she was worn out at the end of that rehearsal...but we still kept the dog. I said you wanted the dog you keep the dog," Freeman recalls.

"Spunky, very, very spunky and knows exactly what she wanted and when she wanted it," is how Sharon Silva describes her.

Silva has known Betty since she was 4 years old. She says what you see is what you get with Betty,  calling her sweet, down to earth a real country girl who, as Silva puts it "doesn't put on any airs about anything."

"She's a farm girl, knows how to ride a tractor, wasn't scared of animals and so very down to earth," Silva said. "She wasn't scared to do whatever needed to be done."

But there was definitely a cultured side to the farm girl. Not too long ago Cantrell was singing in a group at Mt. De Sales, perfecting her vocal skills with music teacher Donna Washburn.

In addition to acting, Betty was in chorus and also a part of the elite singers in the "chorale." Washburn says she knew Betty's talent was special.

"She had a very good voice and really wanted to work hard and stretch and develop and do the best she could always," Washburn said.

And "that" they all say is what sets her apart, that strong drive to be the best and why they all cried and cheered when their "Betty" walked away with the crown.

None of them predicted Cantrell would win Miss America, she was not your typical "pageant" girl. She entered her first pageant after high school just two years ago.

However, they all knew no matter what Betty did, it would be great.

"She just has that personality, down to earth and cares about everyone and everything she does, so I knew she would be awesome no matter what she did," Silva said.

Cantrell was crowned Miss America after being in only four pageants, which is pretty unusual. She won $50,000 in scholarship money, something she really wants to make sure young girls understand – pageants can be a great way to help pay for college.

Cantrell is also getting the message out about her platform Healthy Children - Strong America, promoting better eating for children.

And join the conversation on social media by using #BeforetheCrown.

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