Catching Up with Katie Harman, Oregon’s First (and Only) Miss America
In September of 2001, just 11 days after hijacked planes crashed into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and a Pennsylvania field, a 21-year-old from Gresham, Oregon, was crowned the 75th Miss America.
Katie Harman, a petite Portland State University sophomore with a stunning, outsize soprano voice—she won the preliminary talent competition with her rendition of Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro”—became Oregon’s first (and still only) winner of the pageant. More than 20 years have passed since the crown was lowered onto Katie’s shining blond head. So where, we had to ask, is Katie Harman now?
Corporeally, Miss America 2002 (the title is always awarded for the year ahead—Miss America 2023, from Wisconsin, was crowned in December) is gracefully reclined on a flowered blue chaise longue in Cielo Home, a Pearl District shop and design studio. She’s just come from a meeting at Beaverton’s Patricia Reser Center for the Arts; in an hour she’ll be getting a blow-out at Blow & Go PDX before heading back to Beaverton for a dress rehearsal for Portland’s Singing Christmas Tree. Before dawn tomorrow, she’ll fly to Medford, drive home to Klamath Falls to spend 24 hours with her family for Thanksgiving, and then it’s back on a plane to Portland for the Pioneer Courthouse Square tree-lighting ceremony and six Singing Christmas Tree performances, and then—take a breath!—it’s on to three Singing Christmas Tree performances back in Klamath Falls. (She’s the event’s creative director, and, yes, she makes some of the costumes.) Impressive, right? But if you consider where Katie Harman Ebner (she married F-15 fighter pilot Tim Ebner in 2003) is now professionally—perhaps psychologically—then the boilerplate question gets even more interesting.
First, though, a thought experiment: Imagine being “a theater kid, a crunchy Oregonian” who’s looking for a better way to pay for college than autoclaving flies. (Seriously). Who entered that first pageant "on a whim" and has competed in only five pageants before the Big One. Suddenly you're in Atlantic City and 24 million people are watching you holler a gleeful “Whoo-hoo!” into Tony Danza’s grinning face. You’re Miss Freaking America now, and before you can even wrap your head around this fact you’re being escorted to Ground Zero, and you’re supposed to … do what exactly? “Take the town by storm / With her all-American face and form,” maybe—at least that’s what the pageant theme song (lyrics by Bernie Wayne) suggests you should do.
“It was very much like putting on a costume and transforming into a character,” Harman Ebner says of the year she spent traveling 20,000 miles a month, putting in appearances on TV, definitely, but also at hospitals, breast cancer advocacy events, and military bases (plus the White House and the Pentagon). And this character, as Harman Ebner understood it, was “a symbol of American culture during a time when the United States was heartbroken and reeling.” Other ways she describes the experience: “like being rocketed to the moon.” And “ a complete culture shift.” And “absolute chaos.”
In other words, being Miss America was mind-boggling, exhausting, and wonderful. It was also not without controversy. In February, her parents complained to the pageant's board of directors about the frequency of her appearances (there weren’t enough of them, they said); in March, the pageant’s chief executive was forced to resign under accusations of mismanagement; in May, students and faculty at PSU protested her selection as commencement speaker. (Her speech won them over, though.)
But what was even tougher than the never-ending duty of being “your ideal” (that’s Bernie Wayne again) and “doing all that 24/7, as an impressionable young person whose brain is still developing,” says Harman Ebner, “was taking that character off at the end of the year.”
In fact, she says, it wasn’t until the pandemic ground life to a halt that she finally had time to sit down and really think about what the heck it had all meant. She did so with the help of a friend and sometime musical collaborator, Pink Martini’s Thomas Lauderdale. Over the phone, FaceTime, and one incredible sleepless weekend at Lauderdale’s Portland abode, Harman Ebner dug deep into memories of that whirlwind year. Her other friendly interlocutors? The pianist Hunter Noack, Lauderdale’s partner, and Sofi von Trapp, who knows a thing or two about being part of a legacy. (She’s the great-granddaughter of the von Trapps depicted in The Sound of Music.)
Because Harman Ebner is admittedly “type-A, highly ambitious, and slightly neurotic,” the result of this memory-mining and soul-searching was not simply a deeper understanding of the ripple effects of a major life experience. On the contrary, it was a one-woman show, Bring My Crown, that she debuted at New York’s 54 Below in April 2022.
“I took various Broadway songs that meant something to me personally, and I interwove them with stories of major milestones of that year,” Harman Ebner says. In addition to reminiscences and show tunes (from Hello Dolly, Annie Get Your Gun, and other hits), the show offers glimpses into Harman Ebner’s achievements since she retired her crown, a noncomprehensive list of which includes raising organic cattle and pygmy goats in Malin, Oregon; establishing a vocal studio; manifesting a music program at her kids’ elementary school; founding Harman Ebner Finery, a line of clutches handmade from Oregon Leather Company scraps and local quilting fabric; earning a master’s degree in vocal performance; and founding the Virtuosa Society, whose mission is to champion female composers past and present.
The cabaret-style show does not mention her symphony performances all over the world, the memoir she’s writing (with mentorship from Amy Argetsinger, author of There She Was: The Secret History of Miss America), her collaboration with LA-based clothing company BURU on a holiday collection made entirely from deadstock fabric, or the possibility that Bring My Crown will have its Oregon debut at the Reser in 2024.
In other words, Katie Harman Ebner hasn’t ever truly slowed down, not since that wild night in Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall. “I'm from the generation of women that was told, ‘You can do it all, and you can be it all,’” she says. She laughs sparklingly. (She laughs a lot, smiles a lot. Of course! She’s a beauty queen!) “It’s a lie,” she says.
Really, though? She has so much—has accomplished so much.
“Part of me still thinks that I haven’t yet gotten to the place where I feel like I’ve done what I set out to do,” Harman Ebner says. “But I don’t think that’s unusual. I think that’s everyone. That’s just the great human ache.”