Former Miss Washington says she led ‘double life’

By Adriana Janovich
Yakima, Washington (AP) 5-09

Elyse Umemoto championed diversity and women’s issues during her reign as Miss Washington 2007.

While she was serving in that role – and partnering with the YWCA to publicize her platform of “Embracing Diversity, Empowering Women” – she now says she was privately living “a double life.”

“I went from being a passionate advocate to a victim, quite literally a statistic,” she said in an interview during a recent visit to the Yakima Valley. “One in four women will be a victim of domestic violence in her lifetime.”

Umemoto is the oldest of four sisters, and one of the top three finishers at the 2008 Miss America pageant in Las Vegas. She made it as far as any Miss Washington ever has, tying with 1959’s titleholder, Sharon Joyce Vaughn, of Port Orchard, as second runner-up.

Outside the limelight, Umemoto was dealing with domestic abuse.

“If this can happen to me – I was almost Miss America – nobody’s exempt,” she said.

Less than two weeks after the Miss America pageant, she filed a report with the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, claiming her ex-boyfriend had physically assaulted her in her Tacoma apartment.

According to the sheriff’s report, the Feb. 8, 2008, assault was one of several incidents, going back to early 2007.

“Nobody knew things were bad, and there was this escalating cycle of abuse,” Umemoto said. “As traumatic as it was – and it was – it was nothing compared to what some women live with on a daily basis, and it strengthened my resolve.”

The day after the assault, according to Peggy Miller, executive director of the Miss Washington Scholarship Organization, Umemoto had a previously scheduled public appearance as Miss Washington. She still showed up, and – according to Miller – put on a happy face. Nobody could tell anything was amiss, she said.

Miller and her husband, Mike, an executive field director for the Miss Washington Scholarship Organization, accompanied Umemoto to court when she sought a protection order.

“At the time, we all did the best we could to get through it,” Miller said. “Basically, it was uncharted territory for us.

“It does go to point out the fact that domestic violence can affect anybody. It doesn’t matter what your education is, what your economic background is, it can affect anybody.”

Three days after the incident, on Feb. 11, 2008, a deputy photographed swelling to the left side of Umemoto’s lower lip, a bruise under her chin, three bruises to her right shoulder, more bruises on both of her arms and knees.

Ultimately, charges were filed and her ex-boyfriend, 24, pleaded guilty in Pierce County Superior Court to a reduced domestic violence charge of fourth-degree assault, as well as a related charge of third-degree malicious mischief.

On April 22, 2008, he was sentenced to 240 hours of community service and two years probation.

Although his name is listed on court records, Umemoto asked that her ex-boyfriend not be identified in this story. She said she believes he’s still keeping tabs on her.

“I don’t want to live my life in fear, but at the same time, you have to be cautious,” she said.

His attorney said he’s moved on.

“He’s been compliant with everything he agreed to do,” said attorney Wayne Clark Fricke, of Tacoma, noting that his client completed the community service last November.

“I don’t know what she’s doing now, but I know he definitely has moved on and regrets, I believe, the entire relationship,” Fricke said.

The incident occurred halfway through Umemoto’s reign as Miss Washington. Throughout that year, she continued to speak about women’s issues, strength and empowerment. She also spotlighted her multiracial background: American Indian, German, Latina and Japanese.



“It wasn’t until we had the Spring Forum meeting that our pageant family was made aware of it,” Miller said. “She did a very good job of maintaining her role as Miss Washington and being an advocate for young women. And she shared her story when the time was appropriate, and I think it was very well received.

“She was very strong.”

But the physical assault wasn’t her only challenge during her year as Miss Washington.

Days before she was scheduled to give up her crown in July, photos – some of which show Umemoto in her bra and making obscene gestures – were posted on the Internet and leaked to the media.

Suddenly, she found herself having to explain those personal photos to the public. A host of celebrity gossip Web sites posted the photos, which Umemoto apologized for during a press conference in Tacoma during her final week as Miss Washington.

“The fact is that these pictures were stolen from me,” she told reporters. “I want to be clear about this: none of these pictures were taken during my year of service as Miss Washington.”

Looking back, she calls her final week as Miss Washington “excruciating” and “emotional.”

“Fortunately, I didn’t have my title taken away,” said Umemoto, now 25 and living in Las Vegas. “I made Miss Washington my life. I took my job so seriously. I want my legacy to be about empowerment, not about what those pictures convey. I refuse to let that be the thing I’m remembered for.”

Now, she’s pursuing modeling, maybe even more pageants.

Overall, she said: “I had a great run as Miss Washington. And Washington offered me so much. Washington was so incredibly good to me.”

Last fall, she appeared on a Dr. Phil show about Internet safety. And while she hasn’t ruled out law school, the 2001 Wapato High School graduate who attended Pacific Lutheran University is putting that plan on hold.

These days, she’s represented by a couple of different talent agencies.

“I’m getting bookings as far out as July,” Umemoto said.

“My allegiance is with the Miss America Organization because that is where I got my start. But there’s so much that has been invested in me to compete nationally.

“It’s not that I want another title,” she added. “It’s not that I want another crown. It’s another challenge. It’s another chance to broaden your scope of the world.”

So, “Miss USA is definitely a possibility,” she said. “I have until I’m 27 to decide.”

 

Umemoto talked about her “double life” during the 2008 Miss Washington Spring Forum, an event for titleholders from across the state and their family members. She said it was difficult to share her story, but that it needed to be done.


Yakima Herald-Republic staff reporter Chris Bristol contributed to this report.
 
 
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