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The SkillsUSA member speaks (very well, thanks) about instant celebrity, facing up to her mistake on national television, and fulfilling her dream. Let’s move on, OK?

Interview by E. Thomas Hall

It all started with a question about one-fifth of Americans not being able to find their country on a map. The answer made Caitlin Upton an overnight sensation.

“Personally, my friends and I, we know exactly where the United States is on a map,” the South Carolina teen replied a few days later. “I don’t know anyone else who doesn’t. If the statistics are correct, I believe there should be more emphasis on geography in our education so people will learn how to read maps better.”

But it was her first answer — not the one Upton later shared with the “Today” show’s Matt Lauer and Ann Curry — on the night of the Miss Teen USA broadcast that had everybody talking. Something about “U.S. Americans” not having maps and how education should help “the Iraq” and “build up our future.” In a few seconds, the question became less about what we allegedly know about geography and more about, “What did she just say?”

Her verbal slip soon was all over the news, became a punch line for comedians and, with 23 million views, one of YouTube’s 40 most-watched online videos. Faced with that kind of attention, many of us would go into hiding, but not Upton — Caite (pronounced Katie) to her friends. Even if the 18-year-old was pretty and blond, she sure wasn’t the stereotype of all those jokes.

On the Web

Because for this talented artist, star athlete and twice-elected president of her school’s SkillsUSA chapter, the joke would be on her detractors. She admitted her mistake, met a lot more famous people and opened doors to many career options.

“Caite was an outstanding student in my advertising design class,” says her former SkillsUSA advisor, Priscilla Bundrick of Lexington (S.C.) Technology Center. “She is extremely talented in the graphics field and worked really hard in class. Her work was always very professional looking, particularly for a high school student.

“So, not only is she beautiful on the outside, but talented and hard working, too. She will be successful in whatever avenues she pursues.”

Previously, Upton’s claim to fame had been her high-school soccer team being the first to reach the state finals. Busy volunteering with community groups such as March of Dimes, the honor student had only been in a handful of pageants before winning Miss Teen South Carolina 2007 and catapulting onto a national stage.

Upton now says she started entering pageants to build up her communications skills. Unfortunately, making it into Miss Teen USA’s top five overwhelmed her. “Is that really me?” she laughed after watching herself freeze up in the video clip. “It’s like I’m not in my actual body.”

Q: You really seemed to handle it well, the aftermath of the pageant question.

Upton: My family and I didn’t really see all the publicity coming and were actually in shock at first. However, I was able to keep things in perspective. My life experiences have kept me strong. My parents taught me to accept and learn from my mistakes.

Q: And you’ve also had a good sense of humor about it.

Upton: My basic personality is one of “living life to the fullest,” “being able to look at things realistically,” and “having fun laughing at myself when I goof up.” I know when to take things seriously. The situation upset me at first. I realized it was not that big of a deal, I am only human.

Q: What kind of job opportunities has this opened up for you?

Upton: The response was overwhelming, with more offers for jobs coming in than what I could do. I was fortunate enough to have been able to do an Internet blog for Dell computers, MTV’s Video Music Awards, “The Tyra Banks Show,” an E! Entertainment TV interview, ESPN Game Day, Paramount Pictures’ “Spiderwick Chronicles,” along with numerous modeling jobs. There was an article in “People” magazine, as well as an Internet blog of me doing a geography quiz.

Q: There was also an offer from Donald Trump’s modeling agency.

Upton: Three days after the pageant, about six hours after I arrived home, I received a phone call from the “Today” show requesting an appearance the next morning. Before I left New York, I interviewed with Ford Models. I was in the airport getting ready to board my plane when a call came in asking me to meet with Donald Trump. My mother was tired, so I stayed behind to meet him, knowing it would be a once in a lifetime experience — not knowing he would offer me a modeling contract that day.

Q: What’s Donald Trump really like?

Upton: Mr. Trump could not have been nicer! I talked at length with Mr. Trump, his wife, and the head of the modeling agency. I would describe him as tall, personable, intelligent — pretty much what people already know about him. I have seen him on other occasions, and he has been truly wonderful to me. I think very highly of him.

Q: So, have you met any other famous people? How were they: what you expected or different?

Upton: I have met so many famous people I could never name them all. The ones I remember best include: Tyra Banks, Johnny Knoxville, George Clooney, Rihanna, Heath Ledger, Owen Wilson, Steve-O, Foo Fighters, Nelly, Ashanti, Matthew Perry, and a whole lot more. I was surprised how approachable all these people were and easy to talk to. People were definitely shorter than what I thought, for example, Johnny Depp. Others were better-looking in person than on TV: Owen Wilson. A year ago, I would have never dreamed I would be associating with all these famous people, [let alone] them actually knowing who I am.

Q: What was it like, being on the “Today” show, where you got another chance to answer the question? And then they gave you an on-air test involving a lunar eclipse.

Upton: It was like 6 in the morning; let’s just say we were very tired. However, Ann and Matt were terrific. They made me feel quite comfortable. I am really glad I had the opportunity to redeem myself. People think they coached me on what to say, but they didn’t. The lunar eclipse piece I saw one time on the ticker board. Then they turned the board off, and I had to repeat it from memory on live TV. It was a great experience.

Q: How did you decide on your career goal, advertising design?

Upton: During elementary school, my art teacher discovered my artistic ability and entered my artwork into several contests. I won several awards for my art. I have continued to develop my skills throughout high school. I have received “star student” awards in both advertising design and Photoshop [photo editing software].

Q: How about SkillsUSA?

Upton: I really enjoyed being SkillsUSA president for two years in high school. As president, I was able to develop my leadership skills and meet wonderful people. SkillsUSA is a wonderful way for students to showcase their talent and come together in a social and educational environment, sharing ideas. [My advisor] was very much a perfectionist and helped me develop my skills. Also, she was very helpful as far as helping me put together my portfolio for my college applications. Mrs. Bundrick was an exceptional teacher.

Q: What will you remember most about your SkillsUSA experience?

Upton: Being SkillsUSA president was truly an honor. It gave me the opportunity to get to know students who I would have never otherwise met. I am most proud of the guest speakers I was able to bring in. I believe that the SkillsUSA meetings helped the students make better choices for their future and careers.

Q: Your mother says you plan to go to Appalachian State University.

Upton: My career goals include not only professional modeling, but going back to school to major in graphic design. Ultimately, my dream is to continue my education to design special effects for TV and movies.

Q: She also says the publicity “hit like a tornado.” It sounds like what your parents taught you helped a lot.

Upton: I really believe in facing up to your mistakes, learning from them, and moving on.

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SkillsUSA Champions | Summer 2008 | Volume 42, No. 4
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