Harry and Jeremy Culpepper have spent hundreds of hours preparing two beauty queens for the Miss South Carolina competition. They have driven more than 10,000 miles over the past four-and-a-half months -- to Columbia, Greenville and Atlanta and back again. They've hemmed dresses and rehearsed interviews. They've attended fundraisers and straightened sashes. All in the hopes of making Miss Hilton Head Island Rachel Tripp and Miss Hilton Head Island Teen Amanda Compton achieve their dreams this week.
"We refer to Miss America as our own Super Bowl," Harry said.
As with the Super Bowl, preparing for a Miss America pageant -- or Miss South Carolina in this case -- is no small task.
Contestants have to find all the right clothing, practice their talents, prepare for interviews and stay in shape. They are also required to perform community service.
But the women involved in these pageants aren't the only ones working hard. Take a peek behind the scenes, and you will see the directors busy at work.
Both Culpeppers volunteer their time with the Miss Hilton Head Island Scholarship Organization. As executive director, Jeremy recruits the girls and the judges. He helps the girls with their overall look and makes sure they are comfortable and prepared for the final competition.
"It's all about making that girl feel like she is Miss South Carolina," Jeremy said.
As chairman of the board of directors of the organization, Harry handles the production aspects of the pageants and coordinates the board and volunteers.
"He is the Simon Cowell and I am the Paula Abdul," Harry said.
During the week of preliminaries, you can see the Culpeppers running around, putting out fires for their contestants. If something rips or needs to be hemmed, they are on it. They give the girls gifts every day. They make signs to hold up in the audience. And they keep the mothers calm.
"I dare say it's probably just as grueling for local directors as it is the contestants because you're constantly on the go, ready for them," Harry said. "But it's a good tired. You're a good tired at the end of the night."
But at some point, the Culpeppers will have to take their seats like the rest of the audience. They are not allowed backstage. They will have to let go, and just sit back and watch the show.
"At that point, we have raised you well," Jeremy said. "Now go do it."
The women say they could not have done any of this without the help of Harry and Jeremy.
Rachel lives in Columbia, and Amanda lives in Greenville. They text, email or talk with the Culpeppers almost daily. Jeremy checks up with them to make sure they are working out and eating right. They talk about plans for the state competition or whatever is happening in their lives that day.
The girls even come to them with personal problems.
"We become their shoulder to lean on, like a dad or big brother," Jeremy said.
He said they become very close to the women over those several months of preparation.
When Rachel comes to town, she stays at the Culpeppers' home in Bluffton.
"They really kind of become our adopted daughters," Harry said. "Our guest room we call the 'queens' room,' and we have pictures of all our titleholders in there."
They spend a lot of time talking about the pageant, but they have fun in the process, playing games and going to the pool and the beach.
Amanda said she specifically chose the Hilton Head pageant because she knew the Culpeppers were good.
"Having directors who are so involved and so helpful has made all the difference," Amanda said. "They've made it so much more enjoyable for me."
MORE THAN A BEAUTY PAGEANT
"It's not just about a crown and a sash," Jeremy said. "It's about so much more."
Harry said the pageants are about teaching the girls that they can achieve anything they set their minds to.
"This organization helps them pursue their dreams," he said.
He said their goal is for the girls go off to the state level feeling like they've already won.
In addition, the organization gives away scholarships and savings bonds. Miss Hilton Head Island won a $1,000 scholarship. Miss Hilton Head Island Teen won $250. The new Miss South Carolina will receive a $25,000 scholarship, and Miss South Carolina Teen will get a $10,000 savings bond.
And then there's the philanthropic aspect of Miss America. Last year, Miss South Carolina and Miss South Carolina Teen raised $7,000 for the Children's Miracle Network.
THERE SHE IS
This is not all the Culpeppers do. Their work with the pageants is on top of their full-time jobs.
Harry is the new theater teacher at Hilton Head Island High School. He taught at Hilton Head Island Elementary School for the Creative Arts for six years.
Jeremy is a nurse intern at Beaufort Memorial Hospital and a nursing student at the Technical College of the Lowcountry. He will graduate in December.
Both have been fascinated with pageants since they were young.
Harry and his father used to watch Miss America together every year. They were thrilled when a deaf woman named Heather Whitestone was crowned Miss America in 1995. Both of Harry's parents were deaf.
"She was the first Miss America with a disability, if you want to call it that, and was very successful," Harry said. "It was pretty meaningful for me just to see that no matter what, any girl could win Miss America if she works hard."
Through the Miss America organization, the girls are learning the importance of helping others and at the same time following their own dreams.
"It's amazing to see what the girls can accomplish," he said. "By the end of this experience, they are tomorrow's leaders. We get to see these young women grow."
Follow reporter Amy Coyne Bredeson at twitter.com/IPBG_Amy.
- On Stage: Hilton Head Island Elementary School for the Creative Arts presents 'Disney's Little Mermaid Jr.'
- Miss Hilton Head Island Scholarship Organization
- Miss South Carolina Scholarship Organization