By Robin Huebner
FARGO – People in North Dakota and far beyond are buzzing about Fargo’s Audra Mari and her first runner-up finish at the Miss USA pageant in Baton Rouge, La., Sunday night.
That best-ever finish for a woman from the state would make most anyone feel fulfilled.
But for Mari and her family, “sad” and “bittersweet” are also words to describe coming one step from winning.
“I’m extremely bummed out, even though I shouldn’t be,” Mari said as she waited in the Baton Rouge airport to catch a weather-delayed flight Monday afternoon.
“I just feel like I had high expectations,” she said.
And, Mari, 20, says it means she likely won’t enter another pageant again because contestants get only one shot at Miss USA – and she believes the Miss America pageant system wouldn’t be a good fit for her.
It’s the second time she just missed that crowning moment – a distinction she was hoping to avoid.
Mari is the only woman to have placed first runner-up in both Miss Teen USA and Miss USA.
The former happened in 2011, when she was a junior at Fargo South High School.
The latter happened Sunday night when she finished just behind Miss Nevada Nia Sanchez, who won the crown.
“One more person to beat out and my life would have changed,” Mari said.
“I’d be in New York right now instead of going back to North Dakota,” she said.
As Miss USA, she would have been the focus of a whirlwind media tour, including appearances on the major TV network morning shows and would be representing the U.S. at the Miss Universe pageant this fall.
Instead, that honor goes to Sanchez.
“I’m glad it went to someone so sweet,” Mari said.
The two clasped hands and bowed their heads during the live broadcast on NBC when they learned they were the finalists. Mari said at that moment, the two were telling each other that it didn’t matter which one of them won.
“She’s very level-headed, and we’re both positive, energetic kind of people,” Mari said.
For Mari’s family, the experience was also bittersweet.
Audra's mother, Kaley Mari, compared it to the North Dakota State University Bison football team playing in the national championship and losing.
“I want to stress, it’s an amazing honor and so exciting for our family,” said Kaley Mari, who teaches second grade at Bennett Elementary School in Fargo.
The president of the Miss North Dakota Scholarship Organization believes Audra Mari’s achievement will spark local interest in pageants.
“I would think it would enhance the chances of young women getting involved,” Marilyn McGinley said. “It’s always difficult to get contestants ... to get people interested in wanting to put themselves out there and compete.”
As Miss USA runner-up, Audra Mari wins a $3,000 cash prize and several scholarships to specific schools.
She has no official duties. But if Sanchez is unable to fulfill her duties, or if Sanchez goes on to become Miss Universe, Mari would become the new Miss USA.
The first runner-up assumed the Miss USA title in 1980, 1995, 1997 and 2012 when Miss USA won the Miss Universe title. In 1967, the first runner-up declined the title and the crown went to the second runner-up. The only other instance when a first runner-up assumed the title of Miss USA was in 1957, when Mary Leona Gage resigned after it was discovered she was married.
As for Mari's immediate future, the former high school hockey, volleyball and soccer player looks forward to “doing nothing” and eating at her family’s home in Fargo.
After that, she will send new photos out to agents in Miami, New York and Los Angeles. She intends to continue to pursue her modeling career and take online classes at NDSU, where she will major in public relations and communications.
She’s grateful for the large contingent of family and friends who traveled to Louisiana from North Dakota to cheer her on.
Mari says she left it all on the table – preparing for the pageant exactly as she should have.
“I did everything I could,” she said. “No regrets.”
Archie Ingersoll contributed to this report.
Readers can reach Robin Huebner at email@example.com.