By Kate Luce Angell
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
On Sunday, Gina Cerilli will be working the crowd at Glitzburgh, a fashion show that raises money for Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. It will be in her official capacity as reigning Miss Pennsylvania USA.
But last Sunday, Ms. Cerilli, 24, of Greensburg, was in Las Vegas competing for a different crown: Miss USA. And while she didn’t win, she did Pennsylvania proud by being one of 15 finalists.
“My original goal was just to get there,” she said of the Miss USA pageant, which was at Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino and was broadcast live on NBC. “But once I was there, my new goal was to make it to the top 15, and I did.”
Ms. Cerilli, a 2004 graduate of Greensburg Central Catholic High School, has been competing in pageants since she was a teenager. She was a top 12 finalist in the Miss Pennsylvania Teen USA pageant in 2003, when she was 18.
In 2005, she made it to the top six at Miss Pennsylvania Teen, then earned second runner-up in the Miss USA state pageant in 2008 and 2009 before being crowned Miss Pennsylvania 2010. She also is a former Philadelphia Eagles cheerleader.
The difference between a state pageant and an event like Miss USA is big, Ms. Cerilli said.
“A lot of girls do state pageants for the experience,” she said. “But at Miss USA, every girl had won at the state level. The level of competition was huge. At the national level, you’re there to win.”
She had to deal with another burden. On Mother’s Day, while she was in Las Vegas participating in events leading up to the Miss USA pageant, Ms. Cerilli learned that her grandmother, Antonetta Cerilli, had died.
Pageant obligations made it impossible for her to fly home for the funeral.
“That was my toughest week,” she said, adding that Miss Nebraska, Belinda Wright, lost her father while in Las Vegas.
“It made us both more focused. We were doing it for them, now, not just for us.”
Ms. Cerilli said she was happy for the Miss USA 2010 winner, Miss Michigan, Rima Fakih.
“She was one of my best friends, and she had the best personality of anyone there,” she said. “Even if I didn’t win, at least I know it went to someone I admire and who I think deserved it.”
Ms. Cerilli said it was interesting to see some of the controversy surrounding Ms. Fakih’s win and one of the photo shoots for the pageant, in which contestants wore lingerie for the theme “Waking Up in Vegas.”
Ms. Fakih, a Lebanese-American, is the first Arab-American contestant to win Miss USA, as well as the first Muslim.
As for the photo shoot, which has been criticized by some as inappropriate, Ms. Cerilli said she believed that it was not significantly different from the swimsuit competition.
“People were saying it was a little too sexy, that we were pushing the envelope. But my rule is: If I can wear it to the beach, then it’s acceptable,” she said.
While the experience of being a Miss USA competitor was often fun, Ms. Cerilli noted there were times when it was stressful. She said that although she was grateful for the constant security around her in Las Vegas, “it will be nice to go to the bathroom by myself” back home.
The days leading up to the competition were packed with 5 a.m. wake-up calls, hair and makeup sessions, photo shoots, media appearances, parties, charity projects and long rehearsals for the show itself.
Ms. Cerilli said her public relations background made her especially interested in the details of TV broadcast.
“It’s amazing to see how these shows work. The NBC crew was constantly adjusting the lighting, the camera angles, making sure we hit our marks.”
She had undergone so much practice by the time the show began, she said, that it was not until she learned she had made it into the top 15 that the experience began to seem real.
“It was just routine until I heard people screaming,” she said. “Then I realized, this is not a rehearsal.”
Although she is disappointed she wasn’t the winner out of the 51 who competed, she said she was a winner in other ways.
“Making it into the top 15 is really an honor,” Ms. Cerilli said. “I did have about 100 people in my group cheering for me. I had the biggest cheering section, so I did win in that category.”
Ms. Cerilli’s parents, Greg and Lorraine of Greensburg, were with her for the week leading up to the pageant. They were joined by many family members and friends for the live show.
Ms. Cerilli holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Philadelphia University and hopes to return to school and get a doctorate. But she added that her Miss USA experience might make her consider a future in television.
For now, though, she has returned to her job as PR specialist at the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County.
She will fulfill her duties and make appearances as Miss Pennsylvania USA until Thanksgiving weekend, when a new Miss Pennsylvania will be crowned, at which point, she said, “my pageant days are over.”
Except for the Miss Universe pageant, in which Ms. Fakih will represent the United States on Aug. 23 in Las Vegas, there is no further for Ms. Cerilli to advance.
She said she has no regrets and is focused on her future as a public relations professional.
“It would have been sad if I’d aged out and never made it,” she said, referring to pageant age limits.
“But I had a goal, and I met it, so I’m happy.”