The bright lights of Broadway are a long way from Warner Robins, but they have beckoned Betty Cantrell nearly all her life.
It may have seemed a long shot for a girl growing up in a double-wide on dirt roads and learning to handle a shotgun.
Middle Georgians who declared “my bet’s on Betty” had the inside scoop that she would outshine 51 other women dreaming of becoming Miss America.
In some ways, she was born to hold the title.
On live television, Kelly Ripa remarked that “Betty Cantrell” is a Miss America name, but Cantrell’s given name is a bigger hint of her future crowning.
In honor of her mother’s full Greek heritage, the beauty queen was born Baciliky Andres Cantrell after her maternal grandmother, who was nicknamed Betty.
Baciliky means royalty, the new Miss America told Fox News host Gretchen Carlson, a former Miss America herself.
Cantrell was so well-received on the Fox and Friends curvy couch that co-host Brian Kilmeade suggested they could do lunch someday when she’s working on Broadway, a block from his New York studio.
Those familiar with her talents expect her to fulfill that dream.
When Betty stopped sucking her thumb, she uncorked a powerful voice that would help seal her destiny.
“It was like there was music bottled up behind that thumb, and as she pulled the thumb out and began to sing, we were amazed,” her father, Mike Cantrell, said. “She had a vibrato at 3 years old.”
Betty invented her own lyrics to popular songs and maintained the melody with perfect pitch, her mother said.
“When we heard Betty sing when she was little, I just thought, ‘Oh my gosh, what a gift,’ and I just always felt like she was meant to use that for something -- something good,” Tassie Cantrell said.
While in the third grade at Sacred Heart Catholic School, Betty performed “Part of Your World” from “The Little Mermaid. “
Her mother remembers younger girls lining the stage in awe of the voice of Ariel the mermaid coming from their schoolmate.
Growing up the daughter of physical therapist parents with a penchant for nutrition, Betty skipped the Pop-Tarts in favor of hard-boiled eggs at breakfast, she told People magazine.
Workouts honed and toned the flawless figure she showcased in a hot pink bikini on the Atlantic City runway.
Days later on “Good Morning America,” she shared the secret of the bounce in her pageant walk. Cantrell worked for months on every nuance needed for a beauty contestant.
Unlike some girls who compete in beauty pageants from the time they can walk, Betty was a late bloomer.
“Whatever a pageant girl is, she’s not a pageant girl,” Mike Cantrell said. “She is just a kind, wonderful soul, someone who probably wouldn’t be what one might think of when they think of the word celebrity. She’s the real deal.”
Seeing an opportunity to win scholarship money to fuel her quest for stardom, she entered the 2014 Miss Warner Robins pageant and was first runner-up. She did the same the next month at Miss Macon and was second runner-up in Miss Capital City.
Her first shot at Miss Georgia came after she was crowned the 2014 Miss Presidential Pathways at Georgia Southwestern University -- the same place her aunt, Dodie Cantrell Bickley, was crowned in the college’s pageant in the mid-’70s.
“I’m such a Betty groupie,” Bickley said, flipping through multiple video files of her niece’s performances. “I always have been ever since she was little.”
The feeling is mutual.
Listed in the Miss America pageant book under Cantrell’s inspiration is Bickley, the former general manager and news director at WMAZ-TV.
Bickley, who now teaches journalism at the University of Georgia, said from the time her niece started talking, she was singing.
After Bickley took her to see “Beauty and the Beast” on Broadway, her 6-year-old niece pulled out a piece of hotel stationery and began writing a letter to Lumiere, the candlestick character.
“She’s amazing. She cracks us up. She’s a sweet soul,” Bickley said. “What she’s about is what she can bring to others. She’s very conscious of the fact she has a gift.”
LONG LINE OF SINGERS
The talent pool is deep.
Cantrell’s paternal great-grandmother was an opera singer in Germany. There’s a long line of singers in her mother’s family, and Cantrell has performed in her father’s band, Campbell Airlines.
Cantrell’s 23-year-old brother, Mikey, is an actor working out of Atlanta, and her sister, Sophia, a sophomore at Mount de Sales Academy, also enjoys performing.
They held up signs in the Betty section of the pageant audience. Cheering was easy. Waiting was excruciatingly difficult.
“We’re just excited that she had the chance to perform on that national stage,” said Bickley, who was in the Atlantic City audience. “Mostly we were thinking, ‘Call her name! Call her name!’ Because they had so many different rounds, and it seemed like she was always at the end.”
Leaving Miss Georgia as the last performer in the talent category was likely by design.
Mount de Sales talent show director Georgia Olson always had Betty close the show.
She remembers first hearing Cantrell’s voice when she was a little freshman at the Catholic high school.
“She opened her mouth to sing, and myself and the other couple of students that were there just about fell off our chairs,” Olson said. “She was phenomenal. She was singing a country song. Immediately I thought we’ve got to put her at the end of the show. That’s the prized spot.”
Cantrell’s high school choral director, Donna Washburn, remembers getting chill bumps when she sang “Astonishing” from “Little Women.”
“It was amazing to see how she developed through the years,” Washburn said. “As she studied privately, she just really developed into a wonderful singer.”
Cantrell was not only a vocalist, but also a consummate performer who ruled the stage, said her high school drama teacher, John Freeman.
“She’s one of those kids that can command when she walks out there. She takes over and she does what she needs to do,” Freeman said. “For her to walk out on that Miss America stage and do what she did I’m not surprised at all.”
Still, he marveled at her ability to calm herself and unleash her “Madame Butterfly” aria just seconds after she was the last contestant called to perform talent.
“I still can’t believe she got up and just started singing that opera with no warm-up,” he said. “She’s so beautiful, but she’s so real. I think that has struck America because we have this new Miss America that is not just a beauty queen.”
She’s as comfortable barefoot in the mud as she is in stilettos.
Although Freeman believes Cantrell would be fabulous in “Wicked,” she can morph into any role she chooses and make it her own.
For the Miss America Shoe Parade, it was a peach butterfly. She refused to cocoon herself inside the convertible in the rain, which delighted those under umbrellas lining the streets, straining to get a glimpse of the other girls who passed by with the top up.
“She worked it the whole way,” said Tassie Cantrell, who was in the floorboard taking pictures and video of her daughter.
Cantrell’s career could not have found a better springboard to catapult her to the footlights of the Great White Way.
Her social media posts often include #lovemyjob, a nod to her being cast in a part that will give voice to her mission of encouraging children to be healthier.
“I think she will absolutely and completely embrace the role of Miss America and try to do it justice and honor in a way I hope the country will be proud,” her mother said.
Betty’s love of children will be apparent as she travels the world, her aunt said.
“I think that she will be beautifully received, and I think that she has a light to shine,” Bickley said.
It will likely be a few weeks before the new Miss America returns home.
“Access to Betty is limited,” her father said. “I mean, heck, I can’t even get to her. She’s a busy girl. We’re just family. She’s the show.”
He realizes there will be times during the year when she feels overwhelmed, but nothing she can’t lick with a good night’s sleep.
“She’s a real genuine person,” he said. “Her rudder is deep, and what I mean by that is, she’s got some strong roots. And I guess all of that glitz probably isn’t going to affect her significantly.”
To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303 and follow her on Twitter@liz_lines.