Growing up in Farmington Hills, Mich., Kirsten Haglund dreamed of being a ballerina. "I'd see older girls who would barely eat and dance so beautifully," says 19-year-old Haglund, who was crowned Miss America Jan. 26. At 15, she restricted herself to a "starvation diet"—no carbs, sugar or fat—worked out twice daily, and "if there was ever a situation where there was going to be food, like after church, I wouldn't go." Soon losing weight "became addictive."

In six weeks at a 2005 ballet camp, she shed 10 lbs., after already having lost 20, from a naturally thin 5'8" frame. When she came home, "I gasped," says mom Iora, a nurse, who brought her to a doctor where she was diagnosed with anorexia.

Kirsten didn't accept that she was sick. "It took six months to get me out of denial," she says. "I thought I was dieting. I was fine." But test results told another story: Her heart rate was low and her circulation and kidney function poor. She began seeing a psychologist and a nutritionist and gave up her ballet dreams. "I couldn't be in that world and be healthy," says Kirsten, who now majors in musical theater at the University of Cincinnati.

A year later, she surprised her family by entering the Miss Oakland County pageant. A beauty contest seems an odd fit for a recuperating anorexic, but Kirsten "was in recovery and felt good about herself," says Iora, whose own mom was 1944's Miss Michigan, a title Kirsten took last year. Now in the national spotlight, Kirsten wants to encourage women to "feel confident about their bodies." Anorexia, she says, "is not a pretty thing. It's awful."