By RODNEY HO The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Published on: 01/26/06 Standing in the wings Saturday night, Mansfield Bias Jr. watched Monica Pang lose the Miss America crown to Miss Oklahoma Jennifer Berry.
The executive director of the Miss Georgia organization braced for tears when Pang got off the stage. Instead she told him, with a grin, "I'm sorry I didn't win."
Monica Pang, Miss Georgia, shown preparing for her swimsuit competition in the Miss America pageant, is grateful for coming in second.
"I just died laughing," he said. "She had no need to apologize!"
Pang — the first Asian-American Miss Georgia — is not one to wallow in self pity.
"It's bittersweet," she allowed, "but I'm happy being runner-up. That's $20,000 in scholarship money!"
Pang (pronounced "pong") didn't blame her near-miss on a minor stumble in the final minutes, when she accidentally told viewers and judges that her Chinese dad was "blond and blue-eyed." (It's her mom who's the blonde.) "It probably didn't help me, but I don't think it hurt me," she said. Indeed, that question was worth only 5 percent of the final score.
She competed in a pageant that drew just 3.1 million viewers, a record for cable network CMT but far fewer than the 9.8 million ABC drew in 2004. CMT has repeated the show several times, so cumulatively, the show has drawn more than 14 million viewers.
"That's probably my mom watching it every single time," Pang joked Wednesday on her way from her Dunwoody apartment to an appearance at the International Poultry Exposition in downtown Atlanta. Still, she was happy with the new partnership: "CMT treated us like royalty. They gave us their full attention."
She described the entire experience as a whirlwind: "I didn't realize how much time would be taken up with rehearsals and media and interviews. We were getting four hours a night of sleep."
In the days leading up to the pageant, Pang barely had six minutes a day to practice her piano piece, Frédéric Chopin's Polonaise in G-sharp minor, a solo that had helped her win Miss Georgia last June.
The 25-year-old grew up in Greenville, S.C., taking classical piano lessons and participating in competitive cheerleading. She began competing in pageants in high school, reaching first runner-up in South Carolina Teen USA.
"She was always mature, precocious and well adjusted," said her mom, Gail, who said she never pushed her daughter to be in pageants.
In fact, Gail said, "I'd rather she be appreciated for intelligence and that kind of thing, more so than just for being a beauty."
Despite being a mixed-race child in the deep South, Pang said she faced little overt discrimination: "In kindergarten, I remember some little kids calling me names. And some people would call me 'Ping Pong' because of my last name. But you become numb to it. It's other people's ignorance."
After high school, Pang crossed state borders to attend the University of Georgia. She planned to study genetics, but her interests changed, and she instead graduated with a consumer journalism degree in 2004.
While in school, she entered the Miss Georgia pageant three times before finally winning last year, her final year of eligibility.
Pang hopes to leverage her pageant experience into a career behind the scenes in the music business.
"I've always been fascinated with the process, how a harmonica and a mandolin blends with an electric guitar," she said. "When I first watched how it works, I realized it's a lot more intricate than I imagined."
"Her car was full of CDs of random bands I've never heard of," said Justin Hoekstra, an account executive at Millennium Sales and Marketing in Buckhead, where Pang worked before she was crowned Miss Georgia. "And she'd always be going off somewhere to see a new band."
Her Tri Delta sorority sister Christy Olliff said Pang can do more than just wear a two-piece bathing suit or cogently answer a question about world peace. She's a natural counselor.
"She's very upfront and honest, and someone you can trust," Olliff said.
Olliff called Pang last week while trying to give up a pack-a-day cigarette addiction cold-turkey.
Between frantic pageant rehearsals, Pang spent a few minutes helping her friend out.
Said Olliff, "She was telling me to take a deep breath and calm down!"