Ukraine Immigrant's Crowning Glory: To Win Miss USA

WELLINGTON, FL -- Karina Brez's story could be the plot of a Disney Channel movie - awkward teen tomboy transforms, with the belief of friends and family and her own tenacity, into a bona fide beauty queen.

Karina Brez, in a portrait with a horse at Luckiest By Far Stables in unincorporated Palm Beach County on Saturday, May 28, 2011. Brez volunteers with the Horses Healing Hearts non-profit organization there.

Look a little closer, and the plot thickens: For the sake of their infant daughter's future, a young family leaves their family and a successful business behind in their politically torn native Ukraine in the waning days of communism, with many of their possessions literally on their backs.

They move from menial jobs in crime-ridden Queens to South Florida, surviving on hard work, the kindness of neighbors and the hopes that one day, their daughter would not only survive, but thrive.

And that daughter, Karina, goes from non-English-speaking, Goodwill-clad outsider to successful businesswoman and a contender to be named Miss USA. It's literally an American success story.

"I've always been up for a challenge," says Brez, 23, the current Miss South Florida USA. In July, the Wellington resident and registered gemologist competes for the title of Miss Florida, which, if she wins it, leads next spring to the Miss USA pageant (that's the Donald Trump-owned one).

A title holder with the ability to professionally appraise her own crown, she started her first business at 6, selling the worms she'd dug up to fishermen on Lantana Beach. And then she changed her business model, realizing that she could just cut the worms in half, therefore doubling her inventory. At 6.

"I think that she is working really hard, like a horse, because she tries to do the best to make things nice for everyone in her life," says mother Rimma, who with husband Alexander runs Alex Jewelry, in the International Jewelers Exchange on Glades Road in Boca Raton. "She tries to help everybody by building up her own life."

Left thriving business

To understand the origins of that determination, you'd probably have to understand her parents.

Dad Alex amassed a small fortune in their native Ukraine, making and selling replica American sportswear in Moscow.

Still, the Brezes made the difficult decision to leave that behind to come to the United States with the help of a Jewish aid organization. That entailed giving up their Ukrainian citizenship and even temporarily leaving older daughter, Yana, now 30, with family, because they couldn't get them all papers.

"She had an opportunity to be in a country where everything would be easier for her," says Rimma, whose husband literally wedged himself into the office where stamps of approval were being granted, holding a desperate throng outside and being hit with a bat. "There was no (guarantee) of that in our country. I think she is a good, good girl with a really good heart."

The Brezes took 1-year-old Karina and loaded items into six suitcases, intending to sell them to survive before they could settle. But at the airport, they found they were allowed only four, and had five minutes to decide what to get rid of. Quickly, they started piling on clothes "like the Michelin man" so they could take as much as possible, Karina says.

The family's road led them through Austria and then Italy, finally arriving in Queens months later. New York didn't exactly roll out the welcome mat - their apartment was regularly broken into.

They found that by the time their money transferred to dollars, it was hundreds of thousands less than they thought. Alex did everything he could, including washing cars for $2 an hour, while Rimma cut hair day and night in the apartment.

Those customers provided little Karina her first audience. "I was there, talking to people constantly, because there were about 30 new people coming in every single day," she says.

Rimma had planned to open a hair salon at the base of the World Trade Center, which at the time seemed like a prime business location but now, in the light of history, seems more ominous.

We'll never know what may have happened with that business, because of a trip the Brezes took to visit family in Palm Beach County. And because of a certain palm tree on the beach in Lantana where Karina would one day start her worm business.

"I hugged this palm tree, and when they tried to get me to leave, I wrapped my arms around it and said, 'I'm not going anywhere,' " she says. "Of course, it was all in Russian."

'The Russian girl'

So that was that. The Brezes lived first in West Palm Beach, then moved to a small apartment in South Palm Beach, to Boynton Beach and then finally to Wellington.

Alex did whatever he could, including jewelry repair, which led to his current business. Karina started kindergarten at Palm Beach Public without speaking a word of English.

As determined as she was, life was socially difficult for an admitted tomboy with a thick accent and mismatched second-hand clothes. "I was always the Russian girl," she says.

"One day, when she was maybe 7 years old, she was in some shop where we saw a beautiful clip for her hair - she always had long hair - and I said, 'I would like to purchase this for you,' " Rimma says. "She said, 'Look at the price. It's too expensive.' She really understood how hard every dollar was for us to make and appreciated it.'

In an example of her trademark brio, Karina decided she was going to Dreyfoos School for the Arts, "even though she couldn't sing or dance," says family friend Deanna Marcus.

"She did set design for her audition! She joined the debate team and she ran for office every year, even though she never won. I would have said, 'Uncle,' but when she sets her mind to something, she does it. She's a smart cookie."

After graduation, Karina studied at the Gemological Institute of America and established her own appraisal business. She decided to try modeling, although she waited to tell her parents until she'd gotten her first job. "I knew my dad would say it was not a good business."

Then came the pageants, starting with Copper Tan and then Hawaiian Tropic. She entered the Miss USA system when she found out she didn't need a talent, because "nobody wants to watch somebody drawing on stage," she says.

Although she lost her first pageant, she hired coach Vida Sheffield of the Fort Lauderdale group Powerhouse Divas to burnish her walk. "It's her drive," Sheffield says.

"She's new to the Miss USA system, but she's ready and willing to do whatever she has to. Her parents instilled in her that drive to never give up, and she really utlitizes that well."

Beauty queens always get teased about the "world peace" thing, but Brez's platform is about peace a little closer to home.

She volunteers with Horses Healing Hearts, which uses the gorgeous equine creatures as emotional therapy for the children of parents dealing with alcohol and drug addiction, says founder Lizabeth Olszewski, whose own mother died of alchoholism.

Karina chose the organization after a co-worker was murdered by her alcoholic husband, leaving an orphaned child. As she struggled with her grief, she says she decided to help other kids dealing with the same sort of pain.

Brez thinks she might go to law school one day, but right now she's focusing on gemology, her pageant, and making good on the promise she made herself to make her parent's sacrifices worth it. And as for world peace, this classic overachiever has an answer for that, too.

"My personal opinion is that everyone would love it, but it's so hard for one person to create everything. As a team we can possibly change the world," she says.

"There is always gonna be someone who wants one thing, and someone else wants another, and with that it is hard to have world peace. But we're all human beings."

Source: Palm Beach Post

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