MARION - Kelly Cruse, 16, will be busier than ever after returning home from Chicago with a new title.

She was crowned Miss Illinois Teen USA 2005 on Nov. 21 after competing against 169 other contestants at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place and next August will vie for the national title.

Kelly, the daughter of Greg and Lisa Cruse of Marion, will compete next August for the national title. Last year's competition was in Palm Springs, Calif., and Kelly thinks this year's may be held there as well. In any case, she will have her round-trip travel expenses to the national pageant paid.

"And we get spending money, too," for the national contest, Kelly added. "They pamper us." Because Donald Trump owns the pageant in partnership with NBC, she hopes to meet Trump.

The Miss Teen USA Pageant, which will be broadcast live on NBC Television, is under the Miss Universe organization.

When scores from the evening gown, swimsuit and interview competitions were tallied, Kelly emerged the winner. Her prizes include a two-year scholarship to Lincoln College valued at $28,000; a $14,000 scholarship to Vandercook College of Music; two other scholarships totaling $1,350; a $500 personal appearance contract, and a $2,000 cash prize to complete her wardrobe. She also won a $1,500 career choice assessment.

To enhance her wardrobe, she's won an evening gown, cocktail dress and appearance suit from The Pageant Room in Marion, worth hundreds of dollars, and a custom designed dress by NiniMomo valued at $650. She also won a $500 designer shoe wardrobe and gift certificates to Nordstrom, The Gap, Express, Victoria's Secret and Sephora, even a dental consultation valued up to $10,000.

"I also got tons of jewelry," Kelly said, showing a delicate ring enhanced with tiny diamonds. The other jewelry includes two sets of diamond stud earrings, valued at $500 and $1,000; a diamond necklace, bracelet and crown ring valued at $1,000 each.

She also won luggage, a flat-screen TV, DVD player, personal MP3 player, 400-minute prepaid phone card and other goodies.

Add to that the acting lessons, pageant preparation class, photography sessions, modeling agency interviews and a "pageant fitness training" package, and it's no wonder Kelly feels she'll need to juggle her schedule.

The experience was wonderful, her mother said, even though their car caught fire when they were on their way home from the pageant.

Kelly, her mom and sister Annie had driven to Chicago separately from Greg Cruse. But when the car caught fire, they ended up having to call him to come get them. As of Tuesday, they were still shopping for a replacement vehicle.

In August, in the first pageant she ever entered, Kelly was crowned queen of the Williamson County Fair. Because she can't hold two titles, she will relinquish her title as Williamson County Fair queen this weekend, she said. The first runner-up will become fair queen.

Annie, now 21 and a student at Murray State University in Kentucky, was chosen Williamson County Fair queen in 1999.

"Annie helped me with my makeup and hair," as well as other aspects of competition, Kelly said.

"Annie began pageant competition when she was 15," Kelly said. "She had a lot of fun and met a lot of girls." Annie also had entered the Miss Illinois Teen USA pageant, and was chosen third runner-up.

Kelly said she waited a while before deciding to compete. "Because I'd been around it with Annie, I thought people would expect me to do it," she reflected. She waited, she said, "to make sure it was the desire of my heart."

Her entire family has been encouraging and supportive, Kelly said. "They did little gift bags to help me get through that weekend," she said of the state pageant. "They had little gifts like gum, and also would put Bible verses in the bags." One bag, she recalled with a grin, contained Skintimate lotion "so I'd have smooth legs in the swimsuit competition."

As Miss Illinois Teen USA, Kelly will have at least two speaking engagements a month, and said she will have to juggle her priorities.

To arrange for appearances or speeches by Kelly Cruse, contact pageant director Angela Shealy at (301) 299-3416, or contact the Cruse family at home at (618) 993-1968.

After attending Marion High School, Kelly opted for home schooling this year to allow her a more flexible schedule, she said, "with more time for a full-time ministry." About two years ago, she said, while she was on a Christian mission trip, "God said he wanted more of my time. I prayed a long time," then decided to leave behind her high school activities and study at home. A junior, she expects to graduate in May.

She was active in bands and choir in high school, and now plays with a youth praise and worship band at Cornerstone Community Church in Marion, her family's church.

Cruse sings, plays guitar and writes music, and is working on her second CD of original music. She studies voice with Karen Sala, a family friend. She played alto sax in the high school band. She also plays piano and guitar, and composes music on those instruments.

Cruse is a cancer survivor who was diagnosed before birth with a neural tumor wrapped around her spinal cord. Though she is now free of cancer, she still must deal with the long-lasting effects of the disease.

She would like to obtain a master's degree and would like to work in crisis intervention, counseling women and teens.

"I was going to do an internship for the ministry this summer," she said, but the pageant win put that on hold.

Kelly admits to feeling "awkward" about the swimsuit competition at the Williamson fair contest, but said she came to consider it "part of taking care of yourself and your body.

"When you get into pageants, you see girls who struggle with body image, but all of us struggle with that," she said. "I feel God created us all uniquely - we don't need to be looking at magazines for a perfect look. I've learned a lot," she said of the pageant competition.

Kelly's local sponsors in the pageant included Marion Ford, Thurmond's Landscape, Byassee Sound and Keyboard, Walker's Heating and Cooling, Union Planters Bank, Southeastern Electric Cooperative, Crab Orchard Golf Course, Subway, Stotlar Lumber, Distinctive Interiors, Norman's Carpeting, Johnson-Hughes Funeral Home and other friends and family.

linda.rush@thesouthern.com 618-529-5454 x15079

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