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More than just Miss Virginia USA

W&L Law grad looks to JAG Corps…after the Miss USA pageant

Correy E. Stephenson//June 29, 2015

More than just Miss Virginia USA

W&L Law grad looks to JAG Corps…after the Miss USA pageant

Correy E. Stephenson//June 29, 2015//

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Laura Puleo was a member of the Class of 2015 at the Washington & Lee law school (photo courtesy of Laura Puleo).

The third year of law school typically entails late nights of studying, trying to get any and all papers complete on time and the rising terror of the approaching bar exam.

Not typically on the agenda: the Miss USA pageant.

But on July 12, Laura Puleo, a recent graduate of the Washington & Lee law school and the reigning Miss Virginia USA, will take the stage in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to represent the commonwealth in hopes of taking home the sash.

“A lot of people think pageants are silly and objectify women,” Puleo said. “But not in the way I’m approaching it.”

Being Miss Virginia USA is what you make of it, she explained. Titleholders are allowed leeway to make their own job description and shape their 12 months in the role. As a soon-to-be lawyer, Puleo was able to take advantage of networking opportunities that would not have otherwise presented themselves – a private dinner with the Supreme Court of Virginia’s Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons and Justice Elizabeth A. McClanahan, for example.

W&L Professor Victoria Shannon admitted that law school students and pageants may not seem to compute but that if anyone can counter the stereotypes about pageant women, Puleo can do it.

“She is intelligent, educated, has a profound sense of community and embodies the spirit of what I would want younger women to aspire to,” said Shannon, who taught Puleo in an ADR class. “She represents the state of Virginia very well.”

Margaret Hu, another professor at W&L, agreed. “Laura is striking back against the stereotypes in a fabulous way,” she said. “She is smart, poised, articulate, community- and family-oriented, and a lovely person.”

Jury trial or pageant?

About a month before graduation, Puleo was participating in a mock trial when she had an epiphany. “This is just like a pageant,” she thought to herself, with the lawyers putting on a performance for the jury just like contestants are on display for the judges.

Instead of trying to prove guilt or innocence, pageant contestants are trying to come out on top – but in both situations, the lawyer and contestant face individuals sitting in judgment with no idea what is going on in their minds, Puleo explained. Just as a jury’s opinion will wane watching a lawyer go back to the table, ruffling through documents and unable to find an exhibit, pageant judges will similarly be dismayed when they see a contestant trip in her dress and heels.

In both settings, “you have to be able to feel emotion and show it but know in your head where you are going with it all to evoke the emotions of other people,” Puleo said.

Competing in pageants allows Puleo to showcase her unique combination of talents. A self-described bookworm – she graduated from Duke University cum laude in 2012 with two degrees in the classics – she appreciates the opportunity to exhibit her intellect, particularly in the interview segment. A dancer for 19 years, stage fright doesn’t even occur to her.

As for the formal attire, “I’m still a girl at heart,” Puleo laughed. “I like to be able to experience the glamour of it all.”

When she won the title of Miss Virginia USA last November, Puleo faced the challenge of combining the rigors of law school with her duties as titleholder. In her first six months, she has tried to represent the commonwealth in as many service-related activities as possible, participating in local parades, laying wreaths on headstones at Arlington National Cemetery, and ducking into the Atlantic Ocean in Virginia Beach in February as part of a Polar Plunge that raised more than $500,000 for the Special Olympics.

Puleo also worked with students at Roanoke’s William Fleming High School to help teach them constitutional law, making it interesting and relevant by discussing current events implicating First and Fourth Amendment rights.

“It’s been an amazing year so far and forced me to be the best Virginia fan and tourist you could possibly imagine,” she said. “There are times it can be hard to believe that I have all of these amazing opportunities.”

A supporter of the military, Puleo adopted one special organization to focus her attention on: the 296 Project. Based in Arlington, the program focuses on active duty and veteran soldiers affected with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury using art therapy. “Not everything can be talked through with words,” Puleo said. “There need to be other mediums to work things out and art therapy is a wonderful way to do that.”

Miss USA, then the bar

Now that graduation has come and gone, Puleo is focused on July 12.

Two weeks beforehand, she will head to Baton Rouge to begin rehearsals and promotional activities for the Miss USA event. Once there, “you have to be on at all times,” Puleo said. “It’s like the longest job interview you could possibly imagine.”

To prepare for the Miss USA pageant, Puleo said she is approaching the event like a law school exam. She trains religiously to stay in shape, crams on current events, and conducts practice interview sessions with Maggie Lawson Mueller.

Mueller and Puleo – who met while competing against each other in pageants – Skype to talk about news headlines and possible questions Puleo could face. A part-time interview consultant for PageantSmart while she gets her master’s degree, Mueller said the goal for Puleo is to create a conversation with the judges in the preliminary interview prior to the telecast.

If Puleo makes it to the final five contestants at Miss USA, she will also face the dreaded on-stage questions from the celebrity judges on live TV. “Those are ‘gotcha!’-type questions,” Mueller said, but expressed confidence in her friend and client. “With her intelligence and educational background, she will do great.”

Given her busy schedule, Puleo has postponed taking the bar exam until February 2016.

After the bar – and depending on the outcome of the Miss USA pageant – Puleo hopes to join the Judge Advocate’s General (JAG) Corps. “I don’t want to serve the country in an abstract way,” she said. “I want to get up in the morning and work for my country every single day, affecting justice.”

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