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At seven years old, Galax native Kylene Barker set her sights on the crown after she saw her aunt crowned Miss Teen Roanoke.
It was an image she couldn't forget, and would eventually become a reality for her.
Just a few years later, Barker went on to win Miss Carroll County, Miss New River Valley Fair and Miss Virginia State Fair pageants.
When she entered Virginia Tech after graduating from Carroll County High School, she had forgotten the world of tiaras and sparkling dresses and focused on cheerleading and studying apparel design and fashion merchandising. But just as she was about to graduate, Barker wanted to see how far she could go in the competition, and took the titles for Miss Pulaski and Miss Virginia.
A few weeks later, after Barker graduated college, she became the first Virginian to be crowned Miss America.
“I couldn't believe it,” recalled Barker of her 1979 win. “When they called my name, it literally felt like I was floating on air. It was a wonderful experience.”
In four months, her life changed, she said, and with it came a line of successes.
But now, going on 55, she gets to see the dreams of other hopefuls come true as she judges the Miss Virginia pageant in Roanoke, to be aired tomorrow, Saturday, on ABC. The pageant will feature 30 young women from across the state competing for the title and the chance to follow in the footsteps of last year’s winner, Caressa Cameron — and the chance to become Miss America.
“I told them this is my year to judge,” said Barker, who last judged a Miss Virginia pageant in 1987. She will help to ring in the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the pageant. “I'm excited to come back. We've got 30 fabulous girls, and Saturday is going to be exciting entertainment. These girls are wonderful and articulate.”
The Miss Virginia Scholarship Program is an official preliminary to the Miss America pageant, the world’s leading provider of scholarships for young women, she noted. Last year, the Miss America Organization awarded more than $45 million in scholarships at local, state and national levels of competition.
In Virginia this year, contestants at local and state levels will receive more than $100,000 in cash scholarships. The contestants, in turn, raise more than $30,000 for the Children’s Miracle Network, the official community service platform of the organization.
On Tuesday evening, Barker spoke from a phone at Hotel Roanoke, discussing her time as a judge for the next three days.
She said the panel of seven judges planned to meet on Wednesday with each contestant one-on-one, asking questions about world events, interests and other topics. On Thursday and Friday, she would be off to judge the evening and swimsuit competition.
The biggest part of the Miss America program is the talent portion, said Barker, who became one of only two gymnasts to win the Miss America competition.
This time, people will be able to vote online on Miss Virginia contestants, and a People's Choice Award will be given.
Barker has judged a few state pageants, such as Michigan and Oklahoma, and has emceed several.
“I chose my home state of Virginia to come back,” said Barker, who spends her summers in Canada and her winters in Naples, Fla., but still visits Galax and her father, Kyle, who lives in Pipers Gap, a few times a year.
Last year, the pageant queen visited the Galax Old Fiddlers' Convention, and when she was introduced on stage, she asked the audience, “How many Hokies are here? They got a big kick out of that,” she said.
“I love coming back to my roots,” said Barker, after meeting with the 30 young hopefuls at a reception at Hotel Roanoke.
When Barker appeared on “The Today Show” after her major win in 1979, she was asked by Gene Shallit what she planned to do after serving as Miss America. She told him that she aspired to open a boutique in Palm Beach, Fla.
“After I won, my life did a 360,” she said. Shortly after the interview, a man in Florida called Barker and asked if she would attend his ribbon-cutting. When dining at a restaurant in Florida, the owner told Barker he had store space available in Palm Beach.
After her year of service as Miss America, she signed a 10-year lease at age 23, and opened D. Kylene Ladies Apparel on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach, which she owned and operated for 13 years. In the early 1990s, Barker traded the business world for the golf course and became an avid golfer.
During the 2007 Miss America Pageant in Las Vegas, she married Canadian businessman Ian McNeill.
“We invited family and friends to what they thought was a cocktail party, but surprised them with our wedding,” she said.
When she returns from Galax to her home in Canada, she takes with her a southern accent, she said with a laugh.
Her must-see destination each time she visits the Blue Ridge Mountains is the Primland golf resort in Meadows of Dan.
And through her father, who volunteered at the Blue Ridge Music Center, she met some local bluegrass legends, which she will showcase to her friends in Naples next month at the country club where she is a member. Wayne Henderson, Jimmy Edmonds, Gerald Anderson, Spencer Strickland and Jeff Little will put on a concert there.
“I'm very excited to have this entertainment,” said Barker, who is proud of her hometown. “I just thought it was a great idea to bring this music to Florida.”
Today, Barker spends her time gardening, playing golf and volunteering for charity organizations, such as her most current project with a shelter for abused women in Naples. She was recently appointed to the Virginia Tech Alumni Association Board of Directors.