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Former foster child 'Dancing' with Daryl Hannah

Charlotte Ayanna won the 1993 Miss Teen USA pageant after her foster mother bet her $150 to compete

January 27, 2000
Web posted at: 4:22 p.m. EST (2122 GMT)

From Paul Vercammen
CNN Entertainment News Correspondent

VAN NUYS, California (CNN) -- The last time Charlotte Ayanna appeared on CNN's "Showbiz Today," in August 1994, she was 17 years old and preparing to crown her Miss Teen USA successor.

Ayanna -- then Charlotte Lopez -- dared to hope for big things in the entertainment industry, despite the grinding poverty in which she'd been raised.

Now 23, Ayanna has a presence that can stop traffic, and she's found her showbiz success.

On the heels of a starring role in a Ricky Martin video, she has her first leading movie role, opposite Daryl Hannah, in "Dancing at the Blue Iguana." Michael Radford of "Il Postino" fame directed the emotional tale revolving around the lives of strippers. The film is in post-production.

"It hit a little home for me, actually," Ayanna says of the movie. "Not the stripping, but seeing these people who haven't been handed the best card in life."

Ayanna plays a stripper in her latest film, "Dancing at the Blue Iguana"

Ayanna herself was dealt a poor hand by fate. She was born in Puerto Rico to a mother she describes as alcoholic, schizophrenic and negligent. Her family moved to Vermont, where Ayanna entered the foster care system, malnourished and branded as unable to thrive.

But the 1993 Miss Teen USA pageant changed her fate. Or maybe, as she suggests, it was her decision to change her last name to "Ayanna," which means "blessed."

"The pageant was such a fluke," she says. "I mean, I was living in an orphanage, and my foster mother bet me $150 to go out for this thing. Nobody, including myself, though that a foster kid could be a beauty queen."

After winning the Miss Teen Vermont contest, Ayanna went on to success in the national competition -- wearing a dress that cost $37.99.

'Back on my feet'

From there, she started getting guest roles on TV. Later would come a book -- in 1996, she wrote "Lost in the System," about her life in foster care, with co-author Susan Dworkin. She got movie roles, including minor parts in last year's "Jawbreaker" and "The Rage: Carrie 2."

Ricky Martin's video for "She's All I Ever Had"

And late last year, she scored a part as Ricky Martin's love interest in the video for his song, "She's All I Ever Had."

"I am very proud to have done that," she says. "Ricky Martin was so sweet, like so not what I ever expected. And it definitely helped me get back on my feet financially."

Then she won her part in "Dancing at the Blue Iguana." The film is as unconventional as her life story. Much of it is being shot fast-break style, with a quick tempo, in the gritty underbelly of the San Fernando Valley. And there's no script.

"Ever since I was a little girl, I envisioned this exactly happening to me," Ayanna says. "Not necessarily doing a movie about strippers, but being young and having somebody like a director like Michael see me, and see something in me, and take a chance. And have a process like we have had."

Ayanna is a survivor, right down to her spike-heeled, silver platform shoes -- although she admits during the interview that "right before you came, I almost completely tipped over like a board -- 'Timber!'"

But she always lands on her feet.

Ricky Martin leading the Latin (music) revolution
May 17, 1999
Review: 'Jawbreaker' just jaw-droppingly awful
February 19, 1999
Review: Stealing an Italian beauty in 'B. Monkey'
October 5, 1999
'Babe' and 'Il Postino' among top Oscar nominees
February 13, 1996

Charlotte Ayanna fan page
Internet Movie Database: 'Dancing at the Blue Iguana'
Internet Movie Database: Charlotte Lopez
Official Ricky Martin site
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