Glamour and Glow: Pageant Contestants Take on Tanning

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Three beauty pageant contestants have made skin cancer awareness their personal cause, and are campaigning against ultraviolet (UV) tanning, on stage and off. Their dedication springs from their history: all have personal experience with skin cancer.

Karissa Martin, Miss Ohio 2008

"I Didn't Think it Could Happen to Me"

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Katie Donnar  

Until she was diagnosed with melanoma in March 2009, Katie Donnar, now 18, was one of the 2.3 million US teens who tan indoors every year. A fair-skinned blonde who never used sunscreen, Donnar had tanned at salons since she was 13. When she started to compete in local pageants in 2008, her mother bought her a tanning bed, which she used up to four times a week for 20 minutes at a time.

When she was 17, Donnar noticed a mole on her left calf. The mole was removed, and found to be a melanoma. The Indiana teen was shocked. "I didn't think it could happen to me," she said. "I had read about skin cancer. I heard about the risks of tanning in sunbeds, but I thought it was sort of a myth." Luckily, the melanoma had not spread, and today, Donnar uses sunscreen, wears protective clothes, and avoids UV tanning.

Skin cancer has emerged as such a compelling cause for these young women in part because most contestants tan to counteract the color-draining stage lights under which they appear. Many contestants believe that a deeper skin tone makes their features more visible and defined for the audience. Kayla Collier, Miss Teen Florida USA 2009, says, "On stage, girls feel more comfortable and confident when they're tan."

The Campaign is Personal

Collier was 16 and had visited UV tanning salons only a few times when her mother noticed a dark spot on her back. When Collier's dermatologist removed the mole, it proved to be a melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. Luckily, it was caught early, and it had not spread. Collier recently testified in favor of a state law limiting minors' access to UV tanning devices.

Karissa Martin, Miss Ohio 2008, was 14 when she had a precancerous mole removed - possibly the result of a serious sunburn on her scalp a decade before. Martin speaks regularly at schools about the dangers of the sun, and appears on behalf of the American Cancer Society at events throughout Ohio.

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Erin O'Connor,
Miss Illinois 2009

Erin O'Connor's involvement began in the seventh grade when the future Miss Illinois 2009's mother was diagnosed with melanoma. Following her mother's death from the disease several years later, she established a mobile sun safety unit that distributes brochures and sunscreenat community events. "Melanoma is a painful way to go. Hard on you, and hard on everyone around you," she says. "In the two years since my mother's death I've been trying to make sure no one else has to go through what she went through."

To achieve a glow that will withstand harsh stage lighting, Collier, Martin and O'Connor use non-UV spray-on tanners or lotions. "To me, these are just another form of makeup, and in pageants, we put makeup everywhere," O'Connor explains. "I've never been to a tanning bed, and I never will, even if I become Miss America."

From the Sun & Skin News, vol. 26, No. 3, Fall 2009.