Miss America: Loud and Clear

updated 10/03/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/03/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

THE FIRST TIME HEATHER WHITE-stone walked down the famous runway in Atlantic City, there were no tears, no flowers and no music, just the eerie stillness of a deserted hall in the middle of the night. It was just a year ago, and the 20-year-old Miss Alabama first-runner up had traveled north to view the Miss America Pageant. "It was about 2 O'clock the morning after the pageant," recalls Heather's mother, Daphne Gray, 48. "Hardly anybody was there. Then Heather walked down the runway, and she said, 'This is what I want to do.' "

And so she did. On Sept. 17, Heather walked down the same runway as the newly chosen Miss America 1995. This time she was the one carrying the bouquet, she was the one crying with joy as the familiar words of "There she is, Miss America" rang out—music she could not hear other than as a faint noise. It was a special moment for Heather—and for the pageant. Heather Whitestone, the first disabled person to win the fabled contest, is almost completely deaf. She had to be told by another contestant that she had won. Heather has no hearing in one ear and only 5 percent in the other. "When children see me speaking and see me dance," she said afterward, "they will realize they have no excuse for not making their own dreams come true."

Heather has let very little get in the way of hers. The youngest of three daughters of Bill, a furniture-store owner in Dothan, Ala., and Daphne, now a seventh-grade math teacher in Hoover, a Birmingham suburb, Heather lost her hearing at 18 months from what doctors believed to be a reaction to medication. But her mother, who has used her own name since she and Bill divorced in 1988, was determined that Heather have the kind of opportunities hearing children have. Early on, Heather let it be known that she didn't want to be different. "Before we started teaching her to sign," says Daphne, "she was trying to learn to talk. When we started the signs, she went mute on me."

On the advice of doctors, Daphne traveled to Denver to study a system that teaches the deaf to read lips and use their voices. "I was so impressed with the children in the program," says Gray. "They were communicating with their voices and their lives seemed so full and rich."

Back home, Heather, who wears a hearing aid, attended public school in Dothan, then moved to Birmingham with her mother and sisters after her parents' divorce. There she enrolled in the Alabama School of Fine Arts, where she studied ballet. She stayed just a year, however, deciding she needed a more normal high school life, and transferred to the Berry High School where, assisted by a special education teacher, she talked, she read lips, she took her own notes, and in 1991 she graduated with a 3.6 GPA.

That was the year Whitestone began competing in beauty pageants—to help pay her tuition at Jacksonville State University, where she is a junior majoring in accounting. She lives at home with her mother.

Miss America 1995 is on a mission of her own. "I want deaf people to know there are no limits to who you are," she says. "Hearing and deaf people have so much to offer each other. I want to build bridges between us."

MICHAEL NEILL
TOM CUNNEFF in Las Vegas and KATHY KEMP in Birmingham

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