There has never been a Miss America quite like Betty Cantrell. For one thing, the twenty-one-year-old from Warner Robins, Georgia, is comfortable driving a full-size tractor. In fact, she can plow an entire field, like Old MacDonald’s drop-dead gorgeous granddaughter. She’s hunted since she was a girl and can skin a rabbit and clean a deer. Her favorite movies? Horror flicks—she likes all the blood and guts. And although she’s walked many a stage in nothing but a bikini and five-inch heels, she detests running for exercise and claims steak and mashed potatoes as her favorite foods.
In some respects, Cantrell won the title of Miss America by being the most unlikely Miss America in the competition. During her nationally televised interview, when judges asked her if Tom Brady was guilty of cheating in the NFL’s “Deflategate” scandal, her response was startlingly undiplomatic: “Definitely.” Her earrings also fell off that night, she tripped twice on her gown, and at one point, she walked onstage with a soggy, shredded tissue in her hand. If she didn’t seem like a seasoned beauty queen, that’s because she wasn’t one: She only began competing in pageants in 2014, hoping to get the chance to perform while earning scholarship money for her education at Mercer University, a liberal arts school in Macon, Georgia, just half an hour from her childhood home.
Yet despite the odds, the judges chose her, and an open-mouthed, crying Cantrell was crowned the ninety-fifth Miss America (and only the second from Georgia). “The reaction everyone saw on TV very accurately expressed how I was feeling,” Cantrell says. “It was a very surreal moment.”
Cantrell’s real name isn’t Betty; it’s Baciliky, after her Greek maternal grandmother. “Betty” seemed more natural in the middle Georgia town of Warner Robins, where she grew up on nearly 700 acres of land her physical-therapist parents bought when she was a toddler. Her house was modest, her nearest neighbor three miles away, her cable TV nonexistent. All of which made for an outdoorsy childhood. She sang to the trees and performed for her menagerie of pets, including snakes and a baby deer. “I’m really thankful for it,” Cantrell says. “It helped me grow up in a very different way than most people do.”
Most of her family’s property is peach orchards and pecan groves, and they lease a good bit of it to Lane Southern Orchards, a century-old, family-run farm based in nearby Fort Valley. As a girl, Cantrell and her brother would drive a golf cart to Lane’s Roadside Market and Cafe, where they’d order peach ice cream made with fruit quite possibly grown on their land.
In 2013, Cantrell was accepted into the vocal program at Mercer’s prestigious Townsend School of Music, a feat that required her to pass a sight-singing audition, a music theory test, and an interview with the department faculty. “It’s hard to get in—and it’s hard to stay in,” Cantrell says. But she was up for the challenge. Her ultimate goal, then and now, is to perform on Broadway and eventually land her dream role as Wicked’s Elphaba.
But the Great White Way and the wonderful world of Oz will have to wait. Until the end of her reign in September, Cantrell will travel the country as Miss America, logging roughly 20,000 miles a month. It’s a gig both glamorous and grueling, especially for a homebody like her. She misses college, from which she took a yearlong break to fulfill her duties. And she’s racked up monstrous cell-phone bills calling her family and her boyfriend, a member of the SWAT police force in Monroe County, Georgia.
But she loves telling people across the country about middle Georgia. Now more than ever, she’s certain it’s the only place she wants to call home. “When this is all over, I want to settle down in the area where I grew up,” she says. “It’s where life seems simple and easy to navigate.” Perhaps that’s because it’s a place that understands her, a beauty queen who drives a tractor, sings her heart out, and speaks her mind.
Miss America’s Macon
When Betty Cantrell was crowned Miss America, she helped put Macon, Georgia, the home of Mercer University, on the map. Her favorite college haunts are centered around Mercer Village, where she grabs coffee at Jittery Joe’s and pizza at Sauced. On Wednesdays, she loves playing trivia at Margarita’s Mexican Bar and Grill, a pencil in one hand and a cup of sweet tea in the other. Her typical trivia night order? Nachos and a chicken-and-cheese quesadilla with refried beans. “And of course, cheese dip,” she sighs. “Don’t get me started on their cheese dip.”