Early morning wake-up calls are built into the job for Camille Schrier, Miss America 2020. In early March, Camille set her alarm for five in the morning to get ready for her keynote address during the Up & Atom Women’s Leadership Breakfast at the Science Museum of Virginia.
“I have to be professional and polished,” says Camille, who always allows time for doing her own makeup and hair and for finishing her morning coffee. “I’m addicted to coffee. I used to bring travel mugs of coffee to elementary school. My parents are as addicted to coffee as I am.”
Camille’s event appearance started at seven that morning in Richmond, complete with that famous Miss America crown. After finishing her speech and now-famous elephant toothpaste hydrogen peroxide science demo, she did a meet-and-greet as well as a second presentation with a question-and-answer period, photos with school groups, and a private interview with PBS. She attended a lunch with Science Museum of Virginia board members and supporters before leaving at one o’clock to meet with young patients and fans at The Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU.
Then it was back to the Science Museum for our interview. “After this, I’m going to my room, have coffee, and then dinner and ice cream,” Miss America says with a broad smile.
This type of schedule is a daily occurrence for Camille, a Virginia Tech graduate and VCU School of Pharmacy student who was crowned in December of 2019. “It’s been a fast year so far,” she says. “I feel like I can’t get everything done. One of the things I want to do is build partnerships between the [Miss America] organization and people that can help fund scholarships. I haven’t been able to spend a lot of time doing that. My role is forward-facing, but I have aspirations to help in other ways.”
Camille’s reign as Miss America began the moment she was crowned. She went from the stage to a press conference with multiple news outlets. The next morning, she appeared on NBC TODAY. “I could barely slip in a 45-minute nap with my makeup on,” she says.
While it might look easy, the job of Miss America can be exhausting. That’s when Camille likes to bring humor into her daily routine. “I think of Miss America as so formal and serious and I am not. I’m a normal person. I am not some sort of celebrity,” she says, “but I am a little weird.”
Camille cherishes her individuality as well as her love of science. “When I’m with kids, I intentionally act weirder than I am,” she says. “I tell them science is totally cool. That helps kids engage with me and not be afraid because kids are intimidated by Miss America. I want to help them relax and see me as a peer. Relating to me is important for them.”
Clever and quick-witted, Camille describes herself as a “punny” person. “I think I have always tried to be funny, but I don’t think it was always effective,” she says of the strategic puns she quite often slips into conversations.
She likes the fact that not everyone recognizes her as Miss America when she’s out and about. “People know Miss America as a brand, but they don’t connect me to Miss America,” she says. “That’s good because I can have a normal life out of this.”
Being away from home has been difficult. Camille misses her two cats – Cappuccino and Latte – who are now staying with her parents in Pennsylvania. “My cats are my children. I call them Miss Americats,” she jokes.
As Miss America, her schedule has been varied in scope and nature and has included everything from speaking to the United Nations General Assembly to attending a dog show in California. “To go to the UN as a speaker in the General Assembly was something I never thought I would have done. It was really cool,” she says.
She’s documenting her year as Miss America as best she can so she will have keepsakes. “I will have taken more photos in the last year than the rest of my life,” she says. “I keep a box of archived materials and I frame articles, especially print articles,” she says. “To have those printed pieces is really special. I get excited about it. I am very sentimental and nostalgic about things like that.”
Miss America Growing Up
Growing up in Newtown, Pennsylvania, Camille was drawn to anything related to science. “I started in the natural world and looked at everything that is alive,” she says. “I also loved cooking and baking, and that was science.”
She came by her love of science naturally. Her mother and grandmother were nurses and one of her aunts is a chemist. “They showed me how science worked in their lives, and encouraged me if [science] was something I was interested in doing,” she says.
Miss America’s mother, Cheryl Schrier, describes Camille as being “several years beyond her years,” as a child. “She was aligned with children and adults. Her mind was a couple of steps ahead,” she says. “She was very curious. She had a million questions and I encouraged that. I enjoyed her curiosity.”
The family – Camille’s parents and her older sister Megan – lives in Bucks County in Pennsylvania, where farms pepper
the landscape. When Camille was a child, the family kept the back of their car equipped with a laundry basket of cracked corn and feed. “We would have to stop at every farm or duck pond to feed the animals,” Cheryl says. “That was Camille’s favorite thing.”
One of Camille’s aunts recognized her niece’s love of living things, whether it was a big mouth bass, a frog that croaked, or a funky looking plant in the woods. That aunt sent Camille butterfly kits for her birthday. “My sister would send larvae and Camille would grow it into a butterfly. It would sit on her hand,” Cheryl says. Camille would scour books to learn more about butterflies. “She was a very factual reader. She didn’t like fantasy,” Cheryl says. “She wanted to read about Houdini. She wanted to read about people, real things, and real facts.”
Camille also appreciated sports. She swam competitively, ran track and field, and participated in field hockey. She was also a winning equestrian. “Yes, Miss America spent summers shoveling horse dung,” says Cheryl, recalling the early days of her daughter’s horse love. “When she was in science camp, she was building rockets.”
She also loved fishing with her dad. “We have a pond that is stocked,” Cheryl says. “We do catch and release. She and her dad have fishing competitions.”
When she was in the kitchen at home, Camille was very focused on cooking. “Her favorite thing in the world is yeast,” says Cheryl. “When she’s making pizza, she does yeast better than I do. She can get it to rise perfectly. She has that touch scientifically.”
Camille credits her eighth grade teacher with helping foster her love of science. “She had us read books, like The Hot Zone about the Ebola virus, which spawned ideas of a future in infectious disease, epidemiology, or immunology. As an eighth grader, you learn how a disease can become a public safety concern,” she says. “She gave me the opportunity to understand how exciting and crucial [science] can be. It can be high stakes.”
When she was young, Camille didn’t have a clear idea about a career. At first, she wanted to be a chef because it combined science and art. Then she considered becoming a marine biologist or going into meteorology.
She entered college, initially at the University of Michigan, with a focus on being a chemical engineer, but eventually zeroed in on biochemistry and systems biology when she transferred to Virginia Tech. She is one of the first two students at the university to receive a diploma in systems biology because it was a new field of study at the time.
“I was really looking for a college that would support me, especially in a science career,” she says. “I thrive in an environment that wants you to succeed and helps you succeed, and that is what I found at Virginia Tech.”
Shihoko Kojima, assistant professor from the biology department at Virginia Tech, who was Camille’s senior thesis advisor, found her to be very good at communicating and explaining her project to others. “She is a hard worker. Even though she would face challenges, she tried her best to overcome them and get them done. She would not hesitate to take risks,” Kojima says.
After graduating from Virginia Tech, Camille enrolled in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Pharmacy to pursue her doctorate in pharmacy – a field of interest she acquired after working for two years in a pharmaceutical company. “That opened up an opportunity for me,” says Camille who is currently on a yearlong hiatus from school. “I decided to do PharmD [doctor of pharmacy] and use it in business. VCU felt like Virginia Tech. It was home and it supported me. I’ve had great support from them at school and through the process of becoming Miss America.”
Kelechi Ogbonna, associate dean for admissions and student services at the VCU School of Pharmacy, helped make sure Camille was progressing at VCU in a meaningful way. “Camille is incredibly humble, highly motivated, and driven,” he says. “She has poise and the ability to think about the larger picture. She focused on how the School of Pharmacy could help her excel.”
Becoming a doctor of pharmacy was a way for Camille to “create some social change and change healthcare delivery in the U.S.,” Ogbonna says. “She wanted to look at where healthcare is broken and how it can be improved.”
Taking the Stage
Camille started competing in pageants in Pennsylvania around the age of thirteen and continued through high school. “She was very successful. She won several state and national titles,” Cheryl says. “She had acquired great onstage speaking skills. We felt they were skills that were important to develop.”
As a young woman, she learned the finer points of presentation on stage and competed in pageants that weren’t focused on beauty alone. “When I turned eighteen and went off to college, I never thought I would do it again.”
Camille decided to compete in the Miss America organization after it dropped the swimsuit competition and boosted its commitment to professionalism and social impact.
As she began her pursuit of an advanced degree in pharmacy at VCU, the possibility of winning scholarships through pageant competition was another game changer.
“I have always idolized Miss America. It’s like the Super Bowl. I wanted to give it a good try before I aged out. I wanted to give myself the opportunity,” she says.
She didn’t tell anyone she was competing in the local Miss Dominion pageant because she was sure she would lose. She was wrong. And toward the end of her first year at VCU, Camille competed in the Miss Virginia pageant (which she did tell friends about) and also won. Next came Miss America.
Ogbonna of VCU remembers sitting down and chatting with Camille about being in the competition. “We talked about what it would mean for the school and for her. She’s a deep thinker. She evaluates all the pieces along the way,” he says.
When they discussed the talent competition for Miss Virginia, Camille’s mom urged her daughter to do something that was “really you… and do it well,” Cheryl says.
A former Miss Vermont had used a science experiment when she competed in Miss America, but didn’t get to the finale to perform it again. “I called her and said, ‘What would you think if I did the elephant toothpaste demonstration,’” Camille says. After winning the Miss Virginia title, Camille’s talent performance went viral. Her mom realized that getting that exposure was a sort of calling, she says. “Her talent was part of her STEM message. She wants young girls to get excited about science.”
The Miss America competition itself was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Camille, who admits she was a little nervous about the talent portion of the show. “I was admiring what the other women could do. These were fifty of the most accomplished women in the United States. I doubted myself a little, but I was confident I was representing the person I was. I wanted to show exactly who I am. That I am a little nontraditional,” she says.
Walking on stage at the large arena during the pageant was overwhelming, but an incredible experience, she says. “I tried to stay in the moment. I didn’t know if I would advance. Moving through [the competition], I wanted to stay focused on that opportunity because the journey could end at any moment and that was okay.”
When it came down to the final moments, she was calm. “I liked Miss Georgia a lot and whether it was her or me, we were both going to be happy,” she says. “When they called my name, it didn’t feel like an actual thing. It didn’t feel real. Did I really win?”
Camille’s mom admits she was nervous when the competition got to the final minutes. “The thing people don’t know is Camille had texted me a picture of her legs before they took their phones away. They were bruised, scraped, and battered.”
Camille has a genetic connective tissue disorder called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and her ankles had given out. She had fallen down a flight of stairs three hours before the finale. “It’s the biggest thing people don’t know about me,” Camille says of the disorder. “It affects the way I do this job.”
She also started having cold symptoms forty-eight hours before the finale. “Camille overcomes adversity,” Cheryl says. “When she got home after winning, she had bilateral sinus infections with a temperature of 103. All of that was brewing during the competition.”
When it came time to announce the winner of Miss America, time slowed down for Cheryl. She was filled with pride as she watched her daughter being crowned.
“Camille and I are very close,” she says. “Someone asked me during the process of Miss Virginia was I okay letting go of her for a year. When I saw her win Miss America, I knew our lives were changing.”
From Stage to Platform
Winning the Miss America title means Camille has an opportunity to enlighten the public about her platform, Mind Your Meds: Drug Safety and Abuse Prevention from Pediatrics to Geriatrics, as well as the importance of STEM education.
Camille started her personal social impact initiative based on her experience as a doctor of pharmacy student at VCU. “I saw a need for education and awareness for everyday medication safety, ranging from over-the-counter medications to prescription opioids,” she says. The daughter of a nurse, Camille grew up exposed to the rules of medication safety because of her mom’s commitment to healthcare. She realized that most caregivers and parents don’t have medical training and might become overwhelmed when administering medications to a child or aging parent.
After attending a Naloxone training session from the Virginia Department of Health and learning about how both prescription and illicit opioid drugs are negatively impacting communities, Camille decided to use her platform to help combat this growing epidemic.
She has had the opportunity to partner with the Drug Enforcement Agency to record public service announcements for national drug take-back days, collaborated with the CDC on its medication safety campaign, and through March, had spoken at numerous conferences and medical centers addressing this critically important issue.
While science education isn’t her official platform, it has become a secondary topic that Camille promotes. “I frequently find myself in schools performing demonstrations and encouraging young people to pursue STEM careers,” she says.
Operating in a Global Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a new and unique challenge for Camille in her role as Miss America. “Never in the history of Miss America has there been a time that our country faced a crisis that prevented Miss America from traveling the country and continuing to meet with the people,” she says. “Flexibility and adaptability are key characteristics to serve in this job, and it has been really amazing to watch as our titleholders around the country have adapted, as have I, to our changing roles. Whether it’s been raising money for COVID funds, reading to students, providing educational or entertaining videos, we’ve all come together.”
Camille has continued to engage with the public through podcasts, meetings on Zoom, Facebook, and Instagram Live broadcasts, as well as live connections for local TV and media interviews. “I look forward to being able to travel physically again. Our organization is monitoring the recommendations of our leading health experts and federal and state governments about when it will be safe for me to travel again,”
Meanwhile, she is learning some new skills, everything from technology tips to video production. “It’s not something I have a lot of experience with, but something I’m learning as I go,” she says. “It’s also been fun to be able to do some of the things I love like cook meals and spend time with my family and my feline friends.”
Being the reigning Miss America still feels unreal, she adds. “I will never really comprehend it all. It didn’t hit me that I was Miss Virginia. I’m still trying to reconcile that.”
photos: courtesy Miss America Organization