By Heather Leszczewicz Special to Published Feb 17, 2006 at 5:22 AM

After being one of 52 of the nation's leading ladies, Miss Wisconsin Tracy Gest isn't too upset at coming home without the Miss America crown.

"The competition is extremely tough," Gest says. "They have the quote, 'best of the best from the nation.' I knew it would be challenging."

At 20 years old, the Menomonee Falls native was up for the challenge. Gest began competing in pageants during her sophomore year of high school at the prompting of a friend who was involved.

"I was kind of shy and she thought it would help me learn more about myself and break me out of my shell," Gest recalls.

A few years later she was named Miss Wisconsin 2005.

"It was my first attempt and I was one of the youngest girls there," she says. "I thought 'you do have a chance to be in the top five.' I never expected to walk away with the crown."

Gest had won a preliminary swimsuit competition earlier in the year, which could have been an indicator that she was in the running. Perhaps it was the dedication to her platform of diabetes awareness that vaulted her to the top.

"(My father was) the core reason why I chose it," says Gest, whose father has lived with the disease.

"I've done extensive volunteer work with four summer camps. It was truly inspirational. I was living my life as a diabetic," Gest says.

She says she got to walk in the shoes of children with the disease and found out how challenging it could be. Gest is a skilled pianist and her talent has given her another way to show her support. Last April she made a CD and donated proceeds to the American Diabetes Association, she says.

Seven months into her reign as Miss Wisconsin, Gest -- who had been attending Carroll College before she won her title -- has been going non-stop, traveling around the state, dedicating her time to speaking to schools and clubs.

"I actually was informed that I would not be returning to school in the fall. The job is demanding and people don't first realize that," Gest says. "School will be on hold. (But) I'm going into communications. Miss Wisconsin is an internship for me."

In the middle of January, Gest and the rest of the Miss America contestants headed to Las Vegas for the pageant where they dedicated much of their time to strenuous rehearsals. Most days the women were up at 8 a.m. and worked well into the night.

"It was a wonderful experience, but very exhausting," she says. "I told my mom I literally lived in the auditorium for the whole time I was there."

There were some highlights for her.

"There was one day where they took us out of the Aladdin resort to the Fashion Show Mall," Gest says. "We were put in a box elevator which would slowly come up from the ground. There were about 1,000 people in this mall. It was the first intro to us for the city of Las Vegas."

Gest says that winning the Miss America crown has been a goal for her, but it's one she won't be able to achieve fully.

"It's a once in a life opportunity. I can never again compete," Gest says. "The age limit is 24 but they only give you one try. That way as many girls as possible can have a chance."

However, she's not bitter.

"It's just the judges' opinion. If it was a different week, it could have been a different winner," says Gest, who believes that Jennifer Berry, Miss Okalahoma, will represent all the contestants well.

She also came out of the competition with a few memories: appearing on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," and meeting "Desperate Housewives" star James Denton, and a moment she can be proud of.

"My talent performance," she says. "To compete on the Miss America stage and have one of the best performances of life? I wouldn't trade it for the world."

For pictures and more information on Tracy Gest, her web site is

Heather Leszczewicz Special to

Originally from Des Plaines, Ill., Heather moved to Milwaukee to earn a B.A. in journalism from Marquette University. With a tongue-twisting last name like Leszczewicz, it's best to go into a career where people don't need to say your name often.

However, she's still sticking to some of her Illinoisan ways (she won't reform when it comes to things like pop, water fountain or ATM), though she's grown to enjoy her time in the Brew City.

Although her journalism career is still budding, Heather has had the chance for some once-in-a-lifetime interviews with celebrities like actor Vince Vaughn and actress Charlize Theron, director Cameron Crowe and singers Ben Kweller and Isaac Hanson of '90s brother boy band Hanson. 

Heather's a self-proclaimed workaholic but loves her entertainment. She's a real television and movie fanatic, book nerd, music junkie, coffee addict and pop culture aficionado.