Politically minded beauty queen has lofty aspirations

Holly Holt strode past a group of students outside of UC Merced's Kolligian Library last week like a busy corporate executive rushing to a meeting -- not a 20-year-old history major or a beauty queen.

Her determined, quick strides contrasted with the students she passed, some lolling on skateboards. She had her arms full and her head down. Her black leather purse tugged on her small frame with the weight of her laptop. Her other arm grasped a bundle of blue and white posters, just obscuring the two names printed on them: McCain and Palin.

Not exactly beauty queen gear. “I don’t think many (beauty queens) are as politically involved as me,” she said.

As Miss Merced 2008, this daughter of Atwater is a busy woman. She does all the duties you might expect of a beauty queen: She went to the county fair in July; she sold cookies outside of Atwater’s Save Mart for the troops; she volunteers for a cancer prevention group, Relay for Life, and she’s even worked the polls. On top of her chores as Miss Merced, she works part-time to pay for college, and is the spokeswomen for the UC Merced Historical Society. “I guess I take life seriously,” she explained.

She also takes politics seriously. She is a member of the 60-person College Republicans at UC Merced; in fact, she’s their public information officer.

The idea of beauty queens with political ambitions is more popular nowadays with a former beauty queen (runner-up for Miss Alaska, 1984), Gov. Sarah Palin, running for vice president.

Still, cliches of beauty queens as dull but good-humored pretty faces die hard. “You shouldn’t assume things about beauty queens,” said Holt.

At this year’s contest for Miss California in Fresno, Holt’s platform itself held tinges of political awareness, said her boyfriend of six years, Josh Lourenco. Her platform emphasized getting young people involved and educated so that MTV and pop culture aren’t the only outlets informing them about the world, said Lourenco.

Even the question she was asked before a large audience in Fresno at the pageant was pregnant with politics. Instead of being asked about world peace, as often happens at such venues, she was asked: Do you think gay couples should be able to adopt? “They can, if they can provide a warm and loving home for them,” she recalled saying.

While Holt’s immediate future involves finishing her degree and then teaching, her ambitions go further than being Miss Holt to a class of fourth-graders.

When pressed, she speaks of running for city council in Atwater at some point and then, maybe, trying for a seat in the State Assembly.

“We have always joked about going on to state Senate,” said Lourenco. “What-I-would-do-if-I-could,” kind of talk.

But others seem to think if Holt is involved, it’s not just talk. “One of these days she might get out there and do something statewide,” said Linda Dash, executive director in the Miss California Pageant. “I do know that she is not one to settle for something local.”

Atwater’s Mayor, Joan Faul, thinks Holt has it in her to be in politics. “She’s going to go far,” said Faul. “She’d be a wonderful city councilperson.”

It is this year’s elections that have gotten Holt especially excited about politics — Palin in particular. “Holly brought the Palin beauty pageant thing up immediately,” said Lourenco. “I’m sure it made her happy even if it was a small coincidence.”

Does Palin’s beauty queen status stoke her own ambitions? “I do find that encouraging,” she said. “Many people could take me more seriously if Palin was elected.”

It might not be obvious, but beauty pageants can be training grounds for future politicians, according to Bonnie Faulk, executive director of the Miss Alaska Scholarship Pageant. In a recent interview in Newsweek about Gov. Palin’s pageant history, Faulk said the poise under pressure and public speaking skills that pageants help build can prepare young women for politics.

So the next time you see Holt, she’ll either be at a ribbon-cutting or knocking on your front door asking for your vote. This season, she’ll be asking you to back the McCain-Palin ticket.

But sooner or later, she might be asking you to vote for one with her name on it.