She began by sending her love to flood victims in her hometown of Houston, and by the time it was over, Miss Texas Margana Wood had won the first night of preliminary competition in her quest to become the next Miss America.
The 22-year-old won the swimsuit competition Wednesday night. She was joined by 20-year-old Miss Utah, JessiKate Riley, who won the talent competition by playing a violin solo on a 115-year-old instrument from Austria.
"I'm so excited to be here in Atlantic City, but my heart is absolutely with the people of Houston," Wood told reporters after winning the preliminary contest. "That's my home."
Her own home was spared by the floodwaters, but she said she has many friends whose homes have been wrecked and whose lives have been upended.
"I send my love to all of them," she said. "We're taking it day by day."
Riley got a huge ovation from the crowd in Boardwalk Hall playing a violin piece she arranged herself on a vintage instrument. She has been playing the violin for 17 years, ever since she was 3.
She has named her instrument "Sam."
"Every little girl dreams of becoming Miss America," she said. "My dream is to portray my heart through my music."
In onstage interviews, contestants described their pageant causes, including curing diabetes, protecting and expanding arts education in schools, supporting military families and increasing understanding among different cultures.
Talent performances included ballet dancing, opera and vocal performances.
The next Miss America will be crowned in Sunday night's nationally televised finale.
On Saturday, the contestants will show off their state-specific footwear in the annual "Show Us Your Shoes" parade along the Boardwalk.
The contestants are vying to succeed Savvy Shields, last year's Miss Arkansas who won the title a year ago.