Olivia McMillan was born with a song in her heart and two feet that wanted to move to the music.
As a little girl, she loved all things Disney. Her voice filled every room in the house. When her daddy came home from work, she would beg him to dance with her. Greg McMillan, all 6-foot-4 of him, would reach down to hold her tiny hands.
Olivia would squeal with delight when her mother, Tracey, let her watch Cinderella.
“Where is my dress?” she would ask. “Where are my shoes?”
She needed her glass slippers.
Olivia celebrated her 17th birthday three weeks ago. She has spent the past seven days in Orlando, Florida, land of the Magic Kingdom. This is Cinderella’s hometown.
She has a castle here.
On Saturday night, Olivia will compete in Miss America’s Outstanding Teen Competition. On Tuesday, the senior from Northside High School in Warner Robins, was the preliminary talent winner for her vocal performance of “Nessun Dorma,” the classic aria made famous by Pavarotti.
There are 53 contestants in the pageant. They come from places like Muscatine, Iowa; Dorado, Puerto Rico; and Bennington, Vermont.
They all have stories about how they got here, but perhaps none more compelling than the one Olivia can share.
Tracey grew up in Statesboro. Greg was from Montgomery, Alabama. They both worked for Progressive Insurance and met at a company picnic in 1986. They started dating in 1991, married two years later and settled in Macon.
After dealing with the heartache of not being able to have children of their own, they started looking into adoption. Tracey soon became disillusioned with the process of going through an agency.
“It was just so antiseptic and uncomfortable,” she said. “It was like going to a florist for a dozen roses and being asked if you want white or red. You shouldn’t do that with a child. They wanted to know if we wanted a boy or girl, black or white. After all the infertility stuff we had been through, then having to deal with that, we believed we should let go and trust God.”
About a year later, Angela Oxford, the former youth minister at First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, called Tracey. She said her former college roommate had a friend who was married to a professor at the University of Missouri. The professor’s wife was helping a 24-year-old graduate student, who was pregnant and unmarried, find prospective parents to adopt her baby.
Tracey contacted the professor’s wife.
“The first thing she wanted me to know was that the baby would be biracial,” Tracey said.
White mother. Black father. Would that be a problem?
No, Tracey told her.
She considered her own history. Her grandparents had lived on a farm in south Georgia in the 1930s. A black family stayed on the property. The sharecropper’s house burned down, killing both parents. Tracey’s grandparents took in one of the daughters and raised her. Of course, she couldn’t attend the same schools or go to the same church in the segregated South.
“So I had a black aunt,” Tracey said. “And Greg was the only white player on an all-black high school basketball team in Montgomery. We were OK with it.”
Tracey contacted the birth mother and had a heart-to-heart.
“It was like looking in the mirror,” she said. “Some of the parallels in our lives were unbelievable. We both had brothers. We both grew up on a farm. We were artists and had golden retrievers.
“I felt like I needed to give her grace. She was having to make a difficult decision. I told her whenever the baby was born -- and she was standing there looking at it -- if she wanted to keep it, she needed to do what her heart told her to do.”
They exchanged photographs. Tracey didn’t hear back for three months. When the young woman said she had met someone, Tracey’s heart sank. She’s going to marry this guy, Tracey thought. The adoption will be over before it ever begins.
Those fears were unfounded. Turns out, the new boyfriend had been adopted, too. He stayed with her in the delivery room.
The baby was born on July 9, 1997. Greg and Tracey drove to Missouri. The Show-Me State Games were being held in Columbia, and hotel rooms were scarce.
They named her Olivia, after actress Olivia de Havilland, who played Melanie in “Gone With the Wind.” Two weeks later, they took their infant daughter home to Macon.
“It was such a tremendous gift to have the opportunity to shepherd her through life,” Tracey said. “I told her mother if she wanted to be part of it, then I wanted her to have that. But she thought it would be confusing to Olivia if she was involved. She wanted Olivia to have a traditional family that wasn’t complicated by this ‘other’ person.”
The McMillans have not had contact with either parent since Olivia’s birth. As soon as Olivia was old enough to understand, Greg and Tracey told their daughter she had been adopted. She has photographs of her mother and father, who was a college football player.
Olivia has grown up with a joyful spirit, sweet and selfless. She has always built people up instead of tearing them down.
“We would pull up to a drive-thru window, and she would tell the girl she had pretty hair or that she loved her fingernails and necklace,” Tracey said.
The road hasn’t been easy, however, even for the kindest souls.
When Olivia was 4, her parents adopted her brother, Max, who also was biracial. They would get stares on the playground and in line at the grocery store.
“Some people don’t understand it when your white mother comes to get you at school ... and you don’t look like her,” Tracey said.
When Olivia was 9, the McMillans moved from Macon to Warner Robins. Tracey welcomed their new community. Folks were more color blind and accepting of “racial and cultural diversity.”
The arrival of Max, now 13, brought another set of issues. He was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, and prone to anxiety attacks and mood disorders. (Olivia has chosen the Sibling Support Project as her pageant platform because of having a brother with special needs.)
While Tracey and Greg were often busy dealing with Max’s behavior, Olivia’s own emotions ran rampant. It caused her to gain weight.
Music was her salvation. A high soprano, she developed her special talent with vocal performance lessons. She sang in the Mercer children’s choir and in church at First Baptist. She became involved with one of the state’s top performing arts departments at Northside High.
When she won the Warner Robins Outstanding Teen competition last year, she was 5-foot-10 and weighed more than 200 pounds. She was told privately that her full-figured physique might get her through a local pageant, but it would be tough to advance once she reached the state pageant in Columbus.
So she embraced a healthier lifestyle. She lost 50 pounds in eight months. She won the Georgia Outstanding Teen pageant June 21 and will represent the state for the coming year.
Now she is on a national stage.
Tracey looks at her daughter’s story, the one that didn’t follow a script.
“She is adopted. She is biracial. She has a brother with special needs. She was overweight and had to battle that demon,” the proud mother said.
And here she is in Cinderella’s front yard.
Where are those glass slippers?
Contact Gris at 744-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org.