Karen O'Hara, 44, is proud to be Mrs. New York America. The 35th woman to wear the crown, O'Hara is a wife of 16 years and the mother of two children, ages 14 and 8. A businesswoman who owns SouthTowns Rte. 219 Antiques in Springville, O'Hara is one determined pageant winner. Before winning the state crown in November, O'Hara was pageant runner-up three years in a row.
>People Talk: Persistent, are you?
Karen O'Hara: I don't give up. I hate to hear the word "no," and when I hear "no," I usually try to find the person who can say yes. I keep on going until I've exhausted everything. I knew if I won, I would change lives in human trafficking. I just had to get there to be that megaphone.
>PT: Is Mrs. New York America the one owned by Donald Trump?
KO: There are two systems: the USA system and the America system. The America system is the oldest pageant system in the United States. Donald Trump owns the USA system.
>PT: What did your family think when you decided to try again and again?
KO: They've been really supportive. When I was first runner-up the second time, I was in my mom's kitchen, and I didn't want to be upset. You give it your all, and if someone else wins then it's their time. You have to be happy for the person who wins. I try to keep in my head that it's just a beauty pageant.
>PT: Is entering a beauty pageant an expensive proposition?
KO: There are women who go and spend a lot on gowns and clothing, and then there are women like me who go to consignment stores who are thrifty and don't have a large pocket book. It's not about what you wear, it's about what you're doing.
>PT: The way you look has a lot to do with winning, right?
KO: It does, but last year there was a woman who went to the Mrs. New York America pageant who lost 150 pounds. She was a hula-hoop instructor. She wasn't a size 2, but she did it because she always wanted to compete in a pageant. She was inspiring.
>PT: Do you have to perform?
KO: There's no talent in the married pageant. We compete in evening gown, swimsuit and interview, and then there's a beauty category. The interview is 50 percent of your score. That's where you win or lose a pageant.
>PT: How many women compete?
KO: This year, there were six. Last year 14 women competed. What happened was, the Mrs. America pageant is changing. Normally it is held in September in Tucson, Arizona. They decided to package the national pageant with Mother's Day weekend, so the state pageant for 2011 was pushed up. I just competed in July with the 14 ladies, and then I recompeted Nov. 13 and won for 2011.
>PT: What did you win?
KO: You don't win money. Actually, I didn't know what the prize package was until after I won. I won a haute couture gown, luggage, gift certificates, a weekend at the Villa Roma Resort (in Callicoon), and a collection of interview suits. They haven't come in yet, so I'm scrambling. I am a jeans and sweaters girl, so when it comes to fashion, I'm trying to pick up what I can.
>PT: How do you prepare for the pageant?
KO: This last time I worked out a lot. I hired a trainer. I hired a stylist, a makeup artist, who is also a pageant coach who is also a former Miss, so she knows what she's doing.
>PT: Were you comfortable with the swimsuit competition?
KO: The first three years I wore a one-piece because I felt my children were in the audience and I was a mom. I never really wore a bikini. It just wasn't me. I think that when I really started working out and my body started to change, I felt more comfortable. I'm 44 years old, and I'm competing with women who are 26 and flawless. I decided to go out there in a bikini and rock it. I'm in the best shape of my life.
>PT: Who is your role model?
KO: I have several, like Oprah. I don't believe in all of her politics, but what she's done is amazing. Barbara Walters is a woman who doesn't take no for an answer. I respect that. My grandmother was a single mom who raised five kids. Elizabeth Edwards, look at her.
>PT: What's your occupation?
KO: I own an antiques store in Springville. I absolutely love it. I move dressers and hang mirrors, and I sweep the floor and wash windows. I do everything you do as a business owner, including balancing the books and writing the checks.
>PT: Your choice of human trafficking as a pageant platform is intriguing.
KO: It's not warm and fuzzy. People really don't understand what it is. There are many aspects of human trafficking. It's not just prostitution or forced sex. It's child labor, men who are forced into labor.
>PT: What didn't I ask?
KO: Well, since I'm supporting a world without slavery and exploitation of women, isn't a pageant exploiting women? There's nothing wrong with a woman who is confident in herself, who wants to be fit and who wants to look good. It's not about people looking at me and saying "Oh wow, look at her." It's about: "She's really worked hard to look the way that she does." It's a lot of work.