UW-Whitewater students on winter break may notice a familiar face as they pass newsstands this week.
One of their own, 20-year-old journalism student and winner of MTV's reality show "Miss Seventeen" Jennifer Steele, will grace the cover of February's Seventeen magazine, which hits stores today.
Steele competed against 17 other women her age for the title of Miss Seventeen -- a reality-show contest aimed at finding a new female role model for Seventeen readers. The women traveled to Manhattan this summer to live in a NewYork loft and were filmed by MTV camera crews as they worked for Seventeen editor-in-chief Atoosa Rubenstein. The series aired in the fall.
"The tasks were kind of hard and they were related to the magazine," Steele said. "It was about being in the moment and on the spot your true character comes out. I think the objective was to find someone different than the typical role models."
In her statements on the show and on the Seventeen Web site, Rubenstein said Steele was chosen because she was "down-to-earth" despite the troubles of her adolescence.
Among the challenges the Wisconsin Dells High School graduate is overcoming: While she was away at college in Boston in fall 2003, Steele's father was sent to prison for supplying methadone to an 18-year-old girl who died of an overdose; and recently, Steele's mother went back to the Columbia County Jail after her sixth drunken driving conviction.
"A lot of times (my 19-year-old sister, Stephanie, and I) got funny looks -- a lot of times they were talking about our parents," she said.
Now that she is something of a celebrity in her hometown and at school, she's still getting "double-takes all the time." The difference is that the people casting those second looks "have something good to say."
"It's so different from normal life," Steele said. "But it's really fun and exciting and so I like it a lot."
The attention, however, hasn't changed her much, said Adrianne Newman, a childhood friend who's now a student at UW-Oshkosh. She said she couldn't think of anyone more worthy.
"I watched every episode," Newman said, "and I thought all of them seemed like they had reasons why they wanted to win as well -- a few more than others. But compared to Jen, I don't think any of them deserved to win as much as she did."
Steele said that despite living with parents who deal with drug and alcohol addictions, she continues a positive relationship with both. On breaks from school, Steele still goes home to her grandmother's house in the Dells and has a close relationship with her sister, a student at Madison Area Technical College.
Jennifer Steele said the examples set by her troubled parents actually helped her decide to steer her own life down a different path.
"I looked and saw how it was affecting their lives and I saw how their choices made our lives more difficult," Steele said.
In the spring of 2005, Steele saw a casting call for the "Miss Seventeen" show and traveled to Minneapolis for the audition. Four weeks later, Steele was picked to live in a Tribeca loft, the same one where episodes of ABC's "The Bachelor" and MTV's "Making the Band" were filmed.
In the finale, which aired Dec. 20, Steele learned she had won not only the Miss Seventeen title, but a $25,000 cash prize, a $17,000 college scholarship and a paid summer internship at Seventeen magazine. She also got to spend the New Year's weekend at MTV's New Year's Eve bash and will serve as a guest columnist in upcoming editions of Seventeen magazine.
Steele plans to return to classes at UW-Whitewater in mid-January to finish out the spring semester. Then she'll head back to New York, where she'll intern directly for Rubenstein and live in a dorm at New York University.
From there, Steele said, the future's up in the air -- she may continue at Whitewater or she may transfer to an East Coast school. Regardless, Steele is basking in her accomplishment and is especially proud of the effect it has had on her family.
"I think that since I've come back my confidence is probably the same, but maybe I'm stronger emotionally," she said. "You know ... what doesn't kill you makes you stronger."