Open the floodgates Houston continues to open its heart, arms, land, homes, etc.

April 1, 2008 by  
Filed under Blogs, Hot Button / Lynn Ashby

Hudnut, a former mayor of Indianapolis, was talking about Houston’s official seal, and was kind enough not to mention that it also pictures a plow. He was on a panel that met here recently to debate Houston’s urban planning (There’s an oxymoron for you). Needless to say, the panelists had a lot of suggestions for our sleepy fishing village on the bayou — win the World Series, cure cancer, put a man on the moon — the usual stuff. Lord knows we’re working on it.

More interesting were the experts’ predictions for Houston’s future: There will be a lot more of us. I mean a whole lot more. By 2015, the panel said, 1 million additional people are expected to settle in this eight-county region, a number which is greater than Houston’s entire population in 1960 (938,219). We are just as close to 2015 as we are to Sept. 11, 2001, which seems like last week if not yesterday. Ah, but wait. The experts’ predictions get worse, or better, depending whether you own several lots in Tanglewood. Three million — yes, 3 million — more residents are expected in this eight-county area by 2035. That’s a 27-year span. Where were you in 1981?

A couple of other stats we might consider: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Texas’ population increased by half a million in the year that ended July 1. As Phillip E. Russell, assistant executive director of TxDOT explained, “They make fun of us, but a whole bunch of people want to be Texans.” Houston has added 250,000 jobs in the last four years, ranking behind only New York City and Dallas in that category. Our town’s population explosion is nothing new. People blow up all the time around here, especially along the Ship Channel, but newcomers today trod a well-beaten path going back to 1836 when both the Republic of Texas and Houston were born. Texas didn’t vote to join the Union until 1845 (recount! recount!), so the first accurate census for Houston was in 1850, which showed a population of 2,396, or about as many of us who bicycle to work today (2,468). From 1850, our population tripled every 20 years until 1930, the year Houston became the most populous city in Texas with 292,352.

Not only do we have a constant flow of newcomers from the other 49 states and south of the border, we have been on the receiving end of special events. The evacuation of New Orleanians to Houston after Katrina was the largest mass migration in this country since the Great Depression. We still have 100,000 evacuees living here; it’s pretty clear they aren’t leaving.

Between the 2000 census and the summer of 2006, there was huge population growth:

Houston — 2,144,491, up 190,860
Harris County — 3,886,207, up 485,653
This eight-county area — 5,539,949, up 824,547

Let us take a break from all these mind-numbing stats to consider how we can get ahead of the needs of an additional million people. For example, where are we going to put all that extra garbage? The average Houstonian generates five pounds of garbage a day, or almost one ton a year. By 2015 that pile of trash will hit 6.5 million tons annually. We need a huge landfill. I suggest Arkansas.

We use 393 million gallons of water a day. With another million dirty bodies around, where we will get more water? Speaking of water, more houses, malls, streets and jails mean less ground to absorb our rain which means more flooding. We could just leave new streets unpaved as they were in 1836. Call the subdivisions RetroWoods and History Hollow. We must ask ourselves a very basic question: Why is our population increasing so rapidly? For one thing, we’re a bunch of sex maniacs resulting in full maternity wards. Then there is our climate. Some urban historians give less credit to Spindletop for the sudden rise in Houston’s early 1900s population than to the advent of air conditioning.

So our climate is bad, but how bad? There had long been a rumor that the British government considered Houston to be a hardship post because the city’s temperatures were similar to those of Bombay (now Mumbai), India and Accra, Ghana. Diplomats here did not get hardship pay, but three years in Houston counted as four towards retirement. A British consulate general once exclaimed, “My, God, haven’t you people ever heard of air conditioning?” (Incidentally, the British consulate here used to put up a little sign in late June, “Due to circumstances beyond our control, we will be closed on the Fourth of July.”).

We have conquered our heat and humidity with air-conditioned stadiums, tennis courts, malls and tunnels. We have connected office buildings and parts of the Texas Medical Center with enclosed, walkways. We are, indeed, a world glass city. All the newcomers will assimilate, just as they have for 172 years, because we can and will accommodate new Houstonians. As for the locomotive on our logo, it’s the little engine that can.

Dream Home

April 1, 2008 by  
Filed under Edit

Patience, flexibility the foundation to building custom home.

There’s an old saying, “If you want something done, you have to do it yourself.” When it comes to building a custom home, Houstonians take this saying to heart. However, the process can be daunting. Without patience, persistence and trust, this American dream can become a nightmare.

When Dean and Marilu Harman began searching for a home in The Woodlands, they found some amenities they wanted, but not all. A design flaw here; an unwanted nook there; great home, bad location; the cons outweighed the pros. When they decided to build the custom home of their dreams, the search was over, but a new journey began. “We knew what we wanted, and when we couldn’t find it where we wanted, we decided to do it on our own,” Dean Harman says.

With a goal, design and budget in mind, the Harmans were prepared to build from the ground up. They selected their land and agreed upon a design that fit their financial and personal needs, and made best use of their lot. “In the design process, there’s a constant tradeoff,” he says. “You have your desires and you have your budget.” When comparing wants to finances, families often find features they can do without.

The Harmans soon realized they had to do more than hand designs to a trusted general contractor. The couple was at the worksite at least four days per week. “We were surprised with the involvement,” Harman says. “There were all the big decisions we knew we would have to make, but there were thousands of little decisions. We made sure we were involved and maybe we were too involved.” Even so, the Harmans said their level of participation ensured the final product was satisfactory.

However, getting what they wanted proved costly — in the budget and on the calendar. People building custom homes should be prepared for a hefty commitment in time and money.

Hiring a trusted general contractor alleviates many concerns; he is there to make best use of the budget in the allotted construction time. The Harmans made sure they had open communication with their contractor as they worked through problems. The open communication also emphasized the trust factor. “There are so many opportunities for [a general contractor] to abuse the resources and trust you give them,” Harman says. “It is so important that you know from the beginning that the general contractor is trustworthy and ethical.” Ensure you are dealing with a reliable, trustworthy contractor by researching firms and reviewing referrals. Agencies, such as the Better Business Bureau, provide background information on many companies, including contractors and home builders. A little research can help you avoid scams and unsatisfactory work.

Also, select a contractor that fits the home’s size and budget. If the budget is more than $1 million (like the Harmans’), then find a general contractor specializing in homes with million-dollar budgets. A contractor without this experience might charge you less; however, they might lose control of the project and cost you time and money. “There are certain expectations for a million-dollar house compared to one [in the six-figure range],” Harman says. “There are going to be higher-end products, materials and design features that won’t be in those homes.” High-end home contractors have the resources to work through the process and unique problems that arise in multi-million dollar projects. Hiring a contractor whose experience matches expectations eliminates many home-building headaches before they start.

That’s not to say the process is perfect, Harman says. No project of this magnitude is without its flaws. Weather, available material and cost, labor, insurance and even rising fuel costs all take a bite out of time and money. “We spent more than what we budgeted,” he says. “We had to be flexible as the process wore on and learned to deal with the frustrations as they came about.” Therefore, Harman advises to include an additional 20 percent buffer into the project’s total budget. For example, if a home is budgeted at a million dollars, then be prepared to spend $1.2 million. If you don’t have the funds to spend more, plan on building an $800,000 house.

In the end, the Harmans got the 4,600-square-foot home they desired. It has a 270-degree view of a golf course and large, wide-open spaces to fit the needs of their growing family. “When it’s all done, you want to get what you pay for, or even something better,” he says. “It’s your money and your dream, so make sure you voice any concerns you have. It’s your home, so it’s important to be involved.”

Greener Pastures

April 1, 2008 by  
Filed under Edit

Downtown park features amenities for all

A new, tranquil sanctuary for Houstonians and visitors lies beneath Downtown’s hustle and bustle. Spanning 12 acres in front of the George R. Brown Convention Center, Discovery Green is Houston’s newest urban park. The park’s official grand opening is April 13. However, it is already hosting events.

Susanne Theis, the park’s programming director, says Discovery Green is not just a plot of green space beneath Downtown’s concrete canyons. “The whole idea is to create an urban space that will draw people together,” she says. Park officials hope to accomplish this goal by combining the central location with diverse activity programming. Activities include yoga, dance and fitness classes; art exhibits; festivals and live music. A co-op organic market will be on-site once-a-week where visitors can purchase fresh produce from local vendors.

Discovery Green is a unique venue for Houstonians, but is not the first of its kind. Park developers examined Millennium Park in Chicago and Bryant Park in New York when planning layout and design for the Downtown park. By doing so, Theis says, developers were able to utilize the small, contained space in a fully functional manner. The project was initiated in 2004 when Mayor Bill White asked what was then-called the Houston Downtown Park Conservancy to raise capital needed to construct and operate the park. The $122 million project was funded by private partnerships and the City of Houston. However, the design was based on input from Houstonians who participated in public meetings. Theis says their vision for an active Downtown park led to many of the amenities and location of Discovery Green. The close proximity to the convention center, Minute Maid Park, Toyota Center and Hilton Americas make the park a central location for visitors to congregate before or after events.

Houstonians even had a chance to name the park through a contest held before the park’s groundbreaking. “Tapping the public to name the Downtown park was a natural decision by the Conservancy,” says Nancy G. Kinder, chairwoman of the Conservancy. “The interest and excitement during our public input phase in 2005 was instrumental in helping us design a truly urban park that will be utilized by all Houstonians.” The name Discovery Green, chosen from more than 6,000 entries, was adopted because it best reflects the spirit and uniqueness of the new park and … represents Houston’s diverse history and communities. “We were thrilled that so many Houstonians submitted ideas on what we should name the park,” says Guy Hagstette, park director of Discovery Green. “Throughout the design phase of the process … the point was made over and over again by neighbors and friends. We want visitors to explore and discover our park and our city.”

Discovery Green’s 12 acres are divided into three distinct areas which appeal to all age groups and interests. Kinder Lake, a one-acre water way, lines part of the northern boundary of Discovery Green. Near the lake is a stage featuring slope lawn seating for musical and theatrical performances. The family area contains playgrounds, walking areas, picnic lawns, dog runs and other activities. The urban garden area abounds with lush greenery where one can relax, play shuffleboard or even work on his golf game. Two restaurants, The Grove and The Lake House are located in this area and complete the park’s facilities. One of the amenities Houstonians requested was plenty of shade, Theis says. That request was granted through groves of trees and a “grandparents’ porch,” which will provide 20 feet of shade in the playground area. Discovery Green also boasts plenty of parking; the ground beneath the park was excavated and built into a parking garage serving the park and convention center areas.

Pieces from nationally acclaimed artists also dot the landscape of Discovery Green. The works of Margo Sawyer add vibrant colors to the park and function as portals from underground parking. Visitors can cool down at the Fayez Sarofim Mist Tree, a 15-foot-high stainless steel Doug Hollis creation. Discovery Green will also showcase several art carts during busy events near the lawn and amphitheater. The art carts are actually golf carts transformed into mobile canvases by local artists and students.

The Downtown venue appeals to all senses — a place where visitors can truly see, touch, hear, taste and explore the best Houston has to offer. Discovery Green is a premiere urban park, like those found in the world’s leading cities, White says. “It is one of many vibrant projects that [changed] the landscape of downtown Houston.”

Highway to Home

April 1, 2008 by  
Filed under Edit

Big city life, small town charm

Suburban residents no longer have to go inside the Loop or Beltway for great entertainment. Developers have brought the venues to them. Big city life and small town charm are just right down the freeway.

Sometimes, busy city life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Attractions and services are great; traffic, crowds and elevated crime levels are not. Suburbs remain attractive places to live and raise families for millions of Houstonians. High-end restaurant and entertainment venues help provide residents with virtually everything they need. “What I like about [the suburbs] is the community,” says Kellie Bass, an eastside resident. “Here, everybody is really down-to-earth. I have no problem with walking into a store, standing in line and talking to the person in front of or behind me; everybody is just that friendly.”

I-45 North (North Freeway) Houston’s north side has experienced explosive growth for decades. It has expanded beyond The Woodlands, Klein, and Spring to turn sleepy towns like Conroe and Magnolia into booming suburban communities. Anchored by feature attractions in The Woodlands, residents enjoy malls filled with national retailers, a river walk shopping and dining district, restaurants, luxurious waterfront hotels and the Cynthia Woods-Mitchell Pavilion, one of the nation’s top concert venues. Another popular shopping district, Old Town Spring, offers quaint shops, antiquing and dining.

U.S. 59 North (Eastex Freeway) Close to one of the nation’s top airports, towns like Kingwood and Humble are filled with families who depend on the airport for work or travel. Restaurants and shopping are near, along with a wide selection of golf courses including Redstone, home to the Shell Houston Open. U. S. 59 North is one of Houston’s bigger, less congested freeways for those who need to drive into town.

I-10 East/S.H. 225 (East Freeway/ La Porte Freeway? Some call the east side Houston’s Second Skyline. However, the Houston Ship Channel’s home is more than just power plants and smoke stacks. The area is also laden with historical places. Deer Park is known as the Birthplace of Texas; the Battle of San Jacinto was fought in an area near present-day La Porte. Today, the San Jacinto Monument, the world’s tallest free-standing obelisk, marks the swampy area where Texas won its independence. Also on display is the U.S.S. Texas, a survivor of both World Wars. The industrial corridor is the economic lifeblood of the community. The plants provide jobs while donating money to schools and projects including nature centers, after-school programs and community outreach. Baytown, one of the area’s most populous towns, continues to grow while embracing small-town life.

I-45 South (Gulf Freeway) The Clear Lake area and regions around the Gulf Freeway are beneficiaries of NASA. Thanks to the high-paying jobs in the region, it has always been ahead of the pack when it comes to luxurious homes and family friendly experiences. Residents are close to Galveston Bay, local marinas and bay-side towns such as Bacliff, Seabrook and Kemah. The Kemah Boardwalk has beautiful waterfront views and many entertainment venues. This area is also home to nature preserves, including the Armand Bayou Nature Center where visitors can go on birding walks or ride pontoon boats on the bayou. Friendswood is a growing suburb in the area. As developers “go to where the people are,” shopping and restaurants are right around the corner from virtually any location.

Hwy. 288 South (South Freeway) The community of Pearland has experienced significant population and economic booms. Residents wanting to get away from Harris County taxes hit the jackpot here. This area offers residents beautiful scenery, good neighbors and quiet living. With top communities like Shadow Creek Ranch and Silver Lake more families are calling it home. The quiet towns of Manvel and Alvin are slowly growing while keeping their small town charm. Freeway expansion has made the 12 mile commute from Hwy. 288 South at Broadway to the Texas Medical Center even easier.

U.S. 59 South (Southwest Freeway) Driving down the Southwest Freeway, it is easy to see this region is still growing. Sprawling estates near top dining and entertainment venues make for ideal suburban life. With boutique shopping and a trendy mall, the region has become a favorite home for dozens of professional athletes. “There are so many reasons that make this a great area to live,” says Sugar Land Mayor Dave Wallace. “It is one of the most benevolent communities I’ve ever lived in. From fund-raising contributions to just helping each other out, Sugar Land is a very close-knit community.” Sugar Land Town Square presents Movies under the Moon on Friday nights, concerts or Sugar Land Superstar, the community’s version of “American Idol,” on weekends.

I-10 West (Katy Freeway) The Houston area stretches far to the west, and includes booming Katy and quiet, rustic towns like Sealy. High school football’s supremacy is only surpassed by the area’s deep love of community. Not only do the areas west of Houston foster a sense of togetherness, they possess progressive thinking. A group called Greater West Houston has developed plans and visions through the year 2050, when GWH projects 1 million new residents and 500,000 new jobs. Goals include being the best place to live, work, play and raise a family in the Greater Houston area. Attractions include Katy Mills Mall, the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center and the Bear Creek War Monument.

U.S. 290 (Northwest Freeway) The northwest area’s convenient location is centered amid downtown, Bush Intercontinental Airport and the energy corridor. The Texas Hill Country can be easily accessed from here. Cypress, Jersey Village and Waller boast new developments, fantastic school districts (Cy-Fair ISD is one of the best in the state) and a perpetual sense of community. “I’ve talked with a lot of people whose children are moving back with their families,” Courtney Rutherford, a life long Jersey Village resident says. “My kids are going to school with my friend’s kids, and that’s just a really good community.” There are many entertainment options, including tours of the St. Arnold’s Brewery, malls and other attractions.

In the Loop about the Inner Loop

April 1, 2008 by  
Filed under Edit

Loop 610 is often thought to separate the heart of Houston from the rest of the city. While the Inner Loop may be a world all its own, it is home to several communities, each with their own distinct charm and attractions. They are like urban suburbs, separated only by landmarks and street signs.

The Heights: A large community inside of Loop 610’s northwest quadrant, The Heights is populated with families, singles and professionals. From luxurious homes to quaint bungalows, The Heights is close to urban amenities but still feels like a suburb; it is the only Inner Loop community retaining a liquor ban.
Boundaries: 18th street to the west, I-45 to the east, I-10 to the south, Loop 610 to the north

Downtown: From the third tallest skyline in the nation to its underground tunnels, Downtown is in the midst of a rebirth. State-of-the-art sports venues, luxurious hotels, trendy lofts and first-class entertainment venues make Downtown the place to be. Ongoing reconstruction continues to attract individuals seeking the downtown lifestyle and easy access to some of the best performing arts: ballet, opera, theater and the symphony.
Boundaries: U.S. Highway 59 to the east, I-10 to the North, I-45 to the west and south

Texas Medical Center: South of Downtown is the Texas Medical Center, the world’s largest medical district. It includes 45 medicine-related institutions, 13 hospitals, four nursing schools, two specialty institutions and two medical schools. Student housing, town home and condominium developments also fill this area. The area also features Reliant Park, a hub for conventions, sports and family events, and is serviced by Metro Bus and the Red Line Metro rail light system.
Boundaries: Loop 610 to the south, U.S. Highway 288 to the east, Bissonnet Street to the north, Greenbriar Road to the west

Binz: Nestled near the north east corner of the Medical Center, Binz consists of large homes, small apartments and several commercial buildings. During construction of Highway 288, the area was separated from Riverside area in the 1970s.
Boundaries: Almeda Road to the east, U.S. Highway 59 to the north, Main Street to the west, Hermann Park to the south

Midtown: Houston’s second-oldest residential neighborhood, Midtown is filled with young professionals and married 30-something couples. Midtown is overflowing with popular attractions drawing individuals wanting the city’s nightlife. The light rail runs directly through Midtown, along Main Street, and the bus station is conveniently located in this area.
Boundaries: Spur 527 to the west, U.S. Highway 59 to the south and east, I-45 to the north

Montrose: West of Downtown, Montrose is considered a demographically diverse area with great restaurants, bars and shopping. Established in 1911, the area blends older homes with new construction. Mansions, bungalows, town homes and condominiums fill this urban sprawl known for its eccentricity and vibrancy.
Boundaries: U.S. Highway 59 to the south, Allen Parkway to the north, Bagby Street to the east, Dunlavy Road to the west

Museum District: This area is comprised of homes, lush greenery, the Houston Zoo, the Medical Center, distinguished museums and many cultural and artistic venues. It is getting a facelift from constant redevelopment by influential individuals wanting to call this area home.
Boundaries: Almeda Road to the east, Montrose Blvd. and Fannin Street to the west, MacGregor Drive to the south, U.S. Highway 59 to the north

Rice Military: The constant construction of condos and town homes and easy access to restaurants, bars and Memorial Park continues to attract young professionals to Rice Military. The name “Rice” derives from the family who owned the majority of the property and founded Rice University; “Military” is a reference to Camp Logan, a U.S. Army training camp, which is now Memorial Park. In 2007, the area was designated as a City of Houston Historic Preservation District.
Boundaries: Washington Avenue to the north, Memorial Drive to the south, Heights Blvd. to the east, Westcott Street to the west

River Oaks: The real estate values of River Oaks are the highest in the Greater Houston area. Many notable Houstonians reside in this luxurious neighborhood filled with “old money.” Sprawling multi-million dollar mansions are built on expansive lots.
Boundaries: Shepherd Drive to the east, Loop 610 to the west, Westheimer Road to the south, Memorial Park to the north

West University: Near Rice University and Rice Village, West University is home to shopping, bars, restaurants, professionals and families. The neighborhood is constantly revamped by remodeling old cottages or building new, upscale homes. Mainly upper-middle class families occupy this beautiful area known as the “Neighborhood City.”
Boundaries: Kirby Drive to the east, Bellaire to the south, Bissonnet Street and Law Street to the North, Almeda Road to the west

Warehouse District: This industrial area has many new town homes, condos and lofts to accommodate growing demand for an urban lifestyle. As new construction continues Downtown, this area will grow in popularity.
Boundaries: I-45 to the south, Scott Street to the east, U.S. Highway 59 to the west, Buffalo Bayou to the north

More than just a pretty face

April 1, 2008 by  
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HTexas What was your childhood like?
Crystle Stewart: I grew up in Missouri City and had the perfect childhood. My mother was a teacher and, in the summers, she would take us to the beach. I lived a pretty sheltered life. I went to church every Sunday and Wednesday. I loved school, loved church, life and my family.

HTexas Did you watch beauty pageants as a child?
CS: When I saw the pageants on TV, those women were unreal. They had great hair and make-up, voluptuous bodies; and I’m sitting at home with a Snickers bar, no make-up and my hair was a mess. I saw these Glamazons and I didn’t think I could be there with them. I didn’t realize all the things they did to get their hair and make up done, to stay in shape and to look like that. It didn’t seem real to me. It was more like a fairy tale. I never thought I would compete, much less win.

HTexas How was it that you began participating in pageants?
CS: I was never the young girl whose mother forced her into pageants. A friend of mine told me she thought I should enter pageants. I looked at her and asked, “Who are you talking to?” I didn’t have the confidence to say I would enter one, but she persisted. I thought she was talking about a small local pageant. Instead, she was talking about Miss Texas USA. I told her I would give it a try. My first pageant was Miss Houston USA in 2002. I finished as the swimsuit winner and third runner-up overall.

HTexas What happened after that first pageant?
CS: I competed again in 2003; I was third runner-up and swimsuit winner. The third year, I was first runner-up and swimsuit winner. I went back, and again was first runner-up and swimsuit winner. That was all at Miss Houston USA. I thought maybe I am one of those people who competes, does great, but never wins. Not winning taught me persistence and perseverance. You have to keep trying when you set a goal and can’t stop until you achieve it. I also gained communication skills and friends. Everyone gains that in pageants. But, not everyone gains persistence because they win on their first or second try. It took me five times. Now, if I don’t succeed my first time, it’s easier to pick myself up. It motivates me and I am definitely a stronger person for it.

HTexas When the announcer said the first runner-up’s name, did it take a second for it to click that you were Miss Texas USA?
CS: I was Miss Fort Bend County and she (co-finalist Brooke Daniels) was Miss Houston. I was looking at her sash and thinking that I wanted to hear “Houston.” You never want to hear your title called. When he announced the first runner-up as Miss Houston, I was overjoyed. Everything goes so fast, everyone is screaming for you. People are hugging you, kissing you, shaking your hand and everything. Then, I was handed the keys to my new car. This was big for me because I was driving a 1995 Ford Escort. I was just overwhelmed. Honestly, I was also tired because my dress was heavy.

HTexas What is a day like in the life of Miss Texas USA?
CS: It’s just a regular day. I get up at 5 a.m., eat my breakfast and go to work. I work at a local high school as an assistant for a class of autistic children. I’m there from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. I do my photo shoots and everything else after work. I have four jobs right now. I work with the students, I model, work as Miss Texas and have my own self-improvement program called Inside Out. It’s a program where I teach young women character building, self-esteem, poise and posture. I want to open a charm school, so right now, these are like little workshops.

HTexas How was it that you began working with autistic children?
CS: I was substitute teaching for a teacher who worked with autistic children. [After] the first day I thought I would never go back again. They had severe cases and I thought it was too much. There were children who were aggressive, some were biters and one who couldn’t keep his clothes on. I didn’t think I could do it. When I got home, something told me I needed to go back. The second day, I helped a student learn how to tie his laces. That just stuck with me. [The school district] asked me to come in as a long-term substitute. I still wanted to model and do pageantry instead; I took a para-professional position and ended up loving it.

HTexas What do you feel is the most important part of your tenure as Miss Texas USA?
CS: I think it’s important that I touch people. Not many people take advantage of what comes with this title, but I enjoy it. I enjoy going to the hospitals and burn centers. Signing pictures for patients; taking pictures with them makes their day. There’s a lot of motivational speaking. I talk to young women and help make them feel good about themselves. It might be cliché, but every pageant girl says they want to help the world. I think I put my money where my mouth is.

HTexas What are your responsibilities as Miss Texas USA?
CS: There are a lot of parades, so I’ve got the waving down. I do a lot of interviews with magazines and talk shows. There’s also a lot of speaking engagements. It’s everything that I thought it would be and more. I have a broader audience for my motivational speaking. It’s great because when I am in front of a group, I know it is what I want, so it makes me focus even more on reaching my goals.

HTexas What sets you apart from being “just another pretty face?”
CS: Goals. I set them and work hard to achieve them. A lot of people have goals, but don’t think they can achieve them. That’s how I was. Now, I set my mind to it and it’s simply preparation meeting opportunity to achieve success. At the Miss USA Pageant, there are 51 beautiful girls on the stage and I have to set myself apart from them. I have to have depth by speaking and helping others. I’m not saying that they don’t do that, but I have to use that to make myself stand out.

HTexas How has this experience changed your life?
CS: I am more in the public eye, so I have to be very conscious of what I am saying and doing. I got a letter from a young girl who told me I am her role model and she looks at everything I do. I cried. She said she watches me and I inspire her to be all she can be. It motivates me to do my best. When I am tired and don’t feel like going on, I look at the letter and read it again. I had a hard time gaining weight and I was so stressed and so busy that I actually lost more weight. I can’t do that because I am a role model.

HTexas As a young black woman, do you feel more pressure in pageantry?
CS: At first, I was blaming losing on being African-American. But really, I knew blaming it on my race was all in my head. I know it wasn’t really that way. But still, it made me want to work harder. I turned things around in my head to where being African- American made me stand out even more and that it would help me.

HTexas Is there any added pressure representing a state as proud as Texas?
CS: Definitely. Starting in 1990, I think, Miss Texas won the Miss USA pageant for five years straight. Usually, people are looking for Miss Texas when she arrives. [Texas has] the biggest [state] pageant, the biggest prizes, and great sponsors and support. But lately, we haven’t cracked the top-five. We’ve gone from winning to not getting to the top, so there’s more pressure. I’m not letting the pressure get to me. I’m using it to make me work harder. I’m a big woman with a lot of love. It’s all about how you handle it.

HTexas How can a regular person relate to Miss Texas?
CS: I’m a regular person. I make mistakes. I am not perfect and can talk about it. I have weight problems that are the opposite of many others. I can’t keep weight on and it’s a problem. If I mess up on something, I can laugh about it. I’m not some glamour girl who walks on stage and wins every pageant. It took me five years to win. I work hard just like everyone else in life.

See Crystle Stewart compete at the Miss USA Pageant live, April 11 on NBC (check local listings).