Lorna McNeill is not a typical UNCP student, and she insists that she is not a typical beauty queen.
If she was not a typical student before winning the Miss North Carolina title, she certainly will never be a typical student again.
She has used her time as Miss North Carolina to tirelessly crusade against substance abuse. Her conviction that she can make a difference make her a remarkable young lady on a mission.
“I am not beauty queen,” the Robeson County native said in an interview days after competing in the Miss America pageant. “My emphasis for the year is drug and alcohol awareness and prevention.”
This is not something I made up for the pageant,” she said. “I have worked and volunteered with substance abuse programs for a number of years.”
Miss McNeill had just covered 3,000 miles of North Carolina roads in 10 days since returning from Atlantic City to promote safe and drug-free schools and “Red Ribbon Week.”
Miss McNeill’s legacy as Miss North Carolina will be as a proud Native American who is a powerful advocate for her cause.
“This is a lot of work, a full time job,” she said of her hectic schedule.
TRUE TO HER ROOTS
Catching up to her is like catching up to a speeding bullet. However fast she is moving and however far her talent take her, she remains true to her roots.
She has made numerous appearances in her home Robeson County and several at UNCP. She recently appeared as mistress of ceremonies at the recent Miss UNCP Scholarship Pageant.
Her feelings for the university go deeper than school spirit.
“For me, attending UNCP is more than just an education – it’s a cultural statement because of the history of the university as the first state supported college for Native Americans,” she said. “This is an important part of who I am.”
Miss McNeill needs just nine more hours to complete her music degree. She plans to return in the fall.
“My skills and focus were sharpened at the Music Department, although my roots in music did not begin at UNCP,” she said. “I’ve recorded a solo contemporary Christian CD and two ensemble CDs with UNCP.”
She was trained in classical voice and sings Broadway, pop and R & B. Her musical choice for the Miss North Carolina came right from the heart.
“I had just finished reading Aretha Franklin’s biography, ‘From These Roots,’ and ‘Natural Woman’ was something I wanted to do,” Miss McNeill said.
The story of her decision to enter one last pageant before aging out of the Miss American organization happened very suddenly.
“It just happened,” she said. “In January, I had returned from Hawaii, where I was performing as a featured entertainer on a cruise line. I had not planned to enter any more pageants.”
“Twenty-four is the age limit, so I had one last shot at the title” Miss McNeill said. “I didn’t spend a lot of time or money before the Miss Topsail Pageant, but I won the title, and I won the physical fitness competition too.”
From there things got very serious for the future Miss North Carolina.
“Coming home from Hawaii, I was struck by the struggles of our youth and adults with substance abuse,” she said. “I knew that attaining the Miss North Carolina title would give me the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of so many.”
Winning a state pageant required considerably more planning and mental preparation.
She weighed this commitment against her desire to finish work on her degree at UNCP. If she won the title, it would mean a year away from school, and winning was a strong possibility because she was a Miss North Carolina semi-finalist in 1998 as Miss Fayetteville.
Taking the cue from her personal philosophy, “carpe diem,” or seize the day, she plunged headlong into the competition.
“I went in strong and focused,” she said, “but winning was a shock.”
From all accounts, her rendition of “Natural Woman” blew away the competition.
“It hit me when they announced the first runner-up, then I was in shock,” Miss McNeill said. “It was like slow motion. From the video, I had a blank look on my face.”
Although she admits to some disappointment about the outcome of Miss America, it does not show in her conversation. She said it was a great experience, and she did not return to Robeson County empty handed.
“Being there was THE event,” she said. “I gave it 150 percent.”
Miss McNeill, the non-traditional student and atypical pageant winner, says she never wants to say “what if” about her life. Any disappointments will be short-lived as she moves on to complete her reign as Miss North Carolina and later her degree.
She credits a stable foundation for her willingness to take on seemingly impossible challenges. Her parents, Hazel and L.H., who own two successful businesses in Lumberton, gave her that foundation.
“You can’t believe how supportive my family has been,” she said.
After graduation, Miss McNeill plans to continue as a professional entertainer.
“From now on, I’ll let my students do the pageants,” she said.
“I hope to continue in professional entertainment and to build a performing arts studio that includes drama and dance lessons in addition to my existing voice studio.”
Although she admits to not having a boyfriend at the moment, her long-range plan includes marriage and family, she said.
“I have an active social life, and I like to have fun,” she said. “A relationship requires a lot of time and energy, something I’m short on right now.”
Whatever the future holds for Lorna McNeill, it is certain that she will remain her own person – committed, intelligent, talented and beautiful too.