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Miss Gwinnett will hand over crown on her birthday

Most people get gifts on their birthday, but Caitlin Andrews will be giving one away. On Saturday, the Lawrenceville resident will celebrate her 21st birthday, but she'll also relinquish her title as Miss Gwinnett, handing the crown to the new winner.

"It's really like starting a whole new chapter," said Andrews, who has lived in Gwinnett for most of her life and is a 2005 graduate of Collins Hill High School. "This experience has been great. It's been a huge honor to represent my county. It's like the water towers say, Gwinnett really is great."

For the last year, Andrews has represented Gwinnett County at numerous events and pageants across the state. The most memorable, she said, was participating in the Miss Georgia pageant, where she finished third runner-up and was the overall talent winner for singing "Nessun Dorma," an opera piece by Puccini that is traditionally sung by male vocalists.

"I think being a female singing it really made me stand out," said Andrews, a vocal performance major and junior at Georgia State University. "The only other female to ever really sing it was Sarah Brightman, and I don't mind being compared to her at all."

Andrews didn't start competing in pageants until she was 17 years old, because her mother "didn't want me to be exposed to all that when I was so young," she said. However, she was drawn to pageants once she discovered the stage could be an additional venue to perform in front of audiences. And the scholarship money didn't hurt. This year, the Miss Gwinnett pageant will award $6,000 in scholarships to contestants.

"The money for school was a big part of why I, why a lot of girls, get started in pageants," she said. "Since I was 17, it's become like my hobby. It's not who I am, but it's just this extra part of my life."

In recent weeks, the pageant world has been under fire, after South Carolina's representative at the Miss Teen USA pageant claimed, while answering an onstage question, that the reason most Americans can't identify the United States on a map is because there is a map shortage.

Andrews is more understanding about the blunder than some have been. After all, she's been up on the stage, in the spotlight and under the same intense pressure.

"That has to be the pageant girl's worst nightmare. Getting up on the stage and fumbling like that, it's scary," she said. "It's a lot of pressure. I mean, her answer was pretty ridiculous, but still. I understand how that feels."

SideBar: Pageants Schedule

Thursday

6:30 p.m.: Baby Miss Gwinnett Pageant (0-18 months)

7:30 p.m.: Young Junior Miss Gwinnett Pageant (9 and 10 years old)

Friday

6:30 p.m.: Toddler Miss Gwinnett Pageant (19 to 35 months)

7:30 p.m.: Young Miss Gwinnett Pageant (11 and 12 years old)

Saturday

8 p.m.: Miss Gwinnett Pageant

Sept. 16

1 p.m.: Wee Miss Gwinnett Pageant (3 and 4 years old)

2 p.m.: Tiny Miss Gwinnett Pageant (5 and 6 years old)

3 p.m.: Little Miss Gwinnett Pageant (7 and 8 years old)

4 p.m.: Junior Miss Gwinnett Pageant (13 and 14 years old)

5 p.m.: Miss Gwinnett Queens Finals People's Choice

5:15 p.m.: Teen Miss Gwinnett Pageant (15-17 years old)