If you Google “Teresa Scanlan,” the second suggestion that pops up, after “Teresa Scanlan bikini,” is “Teresa Scanlan wig.” This is not a meme or a joke. Her decision to compete in the Miss America pageant wearing a wig became an item of interest only after Scanlan won, with debate flaring up online on the topic of whether a wig is technically cheating (it is not) or just unforgivably weird.
It does not strike Scanlan as weird at all. Most of the other girls wore extensions, she points out. (“I don’t really see the difference. It’s all basically the same thing.”) The appeal of wigs first occurred to her when she met Miss Delaware, who has alopecia and is allergic to her own hair. “I was trying to figure out what I could do to help my hair because it really was getting damaged,” Scanlan tells me. Years of dyeing and styling her hair for pageants had left it frizzled. After researching the options, she bought herself a ticket to Tampa, where she sat for three days’ worth of fittings with a wigmaker named Bobbi Russell. The result was a pair of hairpieces that Scanlan washes and styles every day, both of them long and blonde but not enough of either to look vulgar. She likes to keep one wig curly and the other straight, for variety’s sake, and although the wigs cost $2,400 each—they are made of real human hair—she notes that the company wound up donating both. When off-duty, the wigs stay propped on little heads in her hotel room.
Teresa is a pro. Downtime, for her, means signing thank-you letters on personalized stationery, tapping out Twitter and Facebook updates on an iPad, filing business cards, and taking notes for a guidebook she plans to assemble for future Miss Americas. (Sample advice: Pack your makeup separately from the rest of your luggage, in case the luggage goes missing.) Watching her work in the limousine, I find it easy to imagine Scanlan marching from the womb with a firm handshake, unimpeachable hair, and talking points.
“You learn to make life bearable,” she says about her childhood, “and then to make it enjoyable.”
It is much harder to imagine her as a teenager, although that is technically what Scanlan is. Pageant styling plays funny tricks with age—the wigs and makeup can make toddlers look like adult women (which is perturbing) and young women look like older women (which is merely curious). The Miss America look is no longer the standard of American beauty, and her appearance can transplant awkwardly into real life. At Walter Reed, I watched two administrators, a man and a woman, digest Scanlan as she passed out of earshot.
Man: Didja see her? She’s cute.
Woman: I think the dress is a little bit much.
Man: But that’s just pageant style.
Woman: So you’re saying it’s okay?
Man: I’m just saying that’s how it is.
The grand prize of the Miss America pageant is $50,000 toward college tuition, roughly the cost of one year at a typical private school. Teresa plans to use her fund to attend Patrick Henry College, a small liberal-arts school in Purcellville, Virginia, founded in 2000 by a Christian home-schooling activist. Eighty percent of its student body comes from a home-schooling background, like Teresa. Also like Teresa, many of Patrick Henry’s students hope to work on Capitol Hill. (She plans on becoming a Nebraska congresswoman before becoming president.) In just its first five years, the school came to rival Georgetown in the number of internships its students earned in the White House. It is also distinguished by the intensity of its religious commitments. Matriculating students are required to sign a Statement of Faith acknowledging the existence of Satan, expected to seek parental approval in romantic decisions, and prohibited from dancing on campus. Scanlan tells me there was never a question in her mind about where she wanted to go to college.
Home-schooling favors the serious child, and Scanlan was “very, very serious” as a young girl. “Probably the most serious kid you would ever meet,” she says. “And not very happy. I was so serious about everything.” Her parents, Mark and Janie, are a child psychiatrist and a homemaker, respectively, though “homemaker” in this case involves full-time teaching, since Janie has home-schooled six of her seven children. (Teresa didn’t know about her older half-brother, who was put up for adoption and is now 31, until last year. Meeting him was “something to get used to,” she says, but “really great.”)
At age 6, Scanlan lobbied to join her siblings in a room furnished by their parents with desks and school supplies. Later, but not much later, she developed the habit of waking up early and finishing all of her work before lunchtime, which left the afternoons free for piano practice, volunteer work, and dance. She grew interested in religion at about the same time and loved to stay up late memorizing Scripture. Her early diaries, she tells me, are full of complaints about her parents making her put away the Bible to go to bed. At 7, she asked her father if she could get baptized.