When Ericka Dunlap got home to Nashville after participating in CBS' The Amazing Race, all she wanted to do was eat Honeycomb cereal, watch TiVo and relearn how to text.
"At that moment, it was the most fulfilling moment of my life," she said of the two boxes of cereal she inhaled. "With my sweet acidophilus milk, it was perfect."
Dunlap, a former Miss America and aspiring country singer, and her husband Brian Kleinschmidt spent 21 days at the end of the summer circling the globe as contestants on the Emmy-winning reality show. They finished third, as revealed on last night's final episode. (The title and $1 million prize went to Meghan Rickey and Cheyne Whitney of San Diego.) The other Nashville couple who competed, Canaan Smith and Mika Combs, were eliminated in episode six when Combs refused to go down a water slide.)
"It was grueling," Dunlap said of her experience on The Amazing Race. "I prepared myself for it to be pretty tough and for me to experience things I would not normally do. I knew I was going to go places I knew I would not have wanted or felt like I needed to go to."
Among those places? Vietnam and Cambodia. Dunlap said that while the countries share a border, her experiences in the two nations varied wildly.
"In Vietnam, the people there make do and . . . there's a love atmosphere there that I really haven't seen before," she explained. "The people make the very best of what they have. Their resources may be limited, but they work in tandem to make life work. In Cambodia, on the flip side, I saw . . . in my judgment it seemed like there was a bit of government manipulation of the people. It's the same part of the world, but very different lifestyles. It really humbled me and made me appreciate what I have."
'I'm not just a beauty queen'
As for the physical and mental challenges, Dunlap didn't waste much time worrying about them. She said she and her husband decided they would assign tasks based on their individual strengths. The only obstacle that concerned Dunlap was the possibility of deep water.
"I can barely survive in the water," she said. "But aside from that, I like thrill stuff. I was hoping I could shave my head and jump off a bridge, but none of that happened. But that's one of the reasons I wanted to do the show so much — to prove to people they can't put me in a box of being just a beauty queen. I'm so much more than that. I'm intelligent and I'm talented and I'm confident and I have all this stuff I'm really great at. I'm not just pretty. 'Pretty' is a matter of painting on a face. At the end of the day, I'm a scholarship winner, I'm not just a beauty queen. That's what I really want people to know."
Dunlap plans to channel her experiences on The Amazing Race into her songwriting.
"They way I see myself is completely different from how I did before I went on the show," she said. "I knew I was capable of completing all these tasks, but I was really faced with just how strong I am, and that really goes back into the music I'm looking forward to writing."
Dunlap, originally from Orlando, Fla., has dreamed of being a country singer since she was 10 years old. Growing up, she and her mother made multiple trips a year to Nashville — in addition to heavily working the beauty pageant and talent show circuit in her own area.
"We wanted to try and land a recording contract, because we 'knew' it was just that easy," she said. "Of course, that was back in the day when karaoke was a big deal, and we'd go to those karaoke joints and I would sing and think I would be picked up, and I wouldn't."
So as soon as Dunlap's 2004 reign as Miss America was over, she went home to Florida and finished her degree, then packed her bags and moved to Nashville.
"I learned my way through the muck and the mire and had some very interesting experiences with people who promised the moon, and I didn't know any better," she said. "I was just as green as the day is long. I wanted to be an artist so bad that I listened to a lot of people who probably didn't really know what was going on, Music Row-wise. I really wanted to hone in on what it took to be a respected artist."
Her situation is a lot different today. Dunlap said she has surrounded herself with a strong team of people eager to help her advance her career. And she's in the studio making a CD with producer Paul Worley.
"I really spent some time just figuring out what I want from this and why I'm here," she said. "I think a lot of people come and don't have a plan. This is a business. At the end of the day, you need to be the CEO of your business. Regardless of what your education is, or what your family life has been like, you just need to own your own thing. I'm really happy with the situation I'm in. Of course, I would definitely like to be able to get my music out to the masses so they can hear what I have to say as an artist."
As for how Dunlap feels her experience on The Amazing Race will impact her music career, she said that's easy.
"I don't feel invincible, but I do feel like a few more stones can be thrown at me and I'm not going to flinch," she said. "Entertainment as a whole is really tough, but Nashville is like grabbing the bull by the horns.
"I appreciate the fact that I've had to work to try and make a name for myself. I don't expect it to be any easier, but I feel like I can take it. Bring it on! But not for too much longer, because I'm ready to get it going. I'm starting to live my life like I'm 65 and I don't give a damn."