She excelled in pageants and on NFL sidelines. Now she’s showing her ‘Worst’ side.

“Ohhhh, I hate onion and I hate garlic,” Juliann Sheldon says.

Then she quickly clarifies. “I mean, I love eating it. But I hate touching it, because then it gets stuck in my nails and that’s all I can smell for days,” says the 29-year-old Charlottean-by-way-of-Pittsburgh, who — speaking of her nails — upon learning that her hands would likely be seen in the photograph for this story immediately started wishing she’d gotten a manicure.

Yes, in many ways, Sheldon represents the pinnacle of girly girliness: Steeped in a since-childhood love of makeup and pretty things, she went on to win the title of Miss Pennsylvania in 2011 (which catapulted her into the following year’s Miss America field) and here earned a spot on the Carolina Panthers’ TopCats cheerleading squad in 2017 and 2018.

But don’t be fooled. Her life doesn’t revolve around vanity.

For one, she’s got a job that has nothing to do with appearances; she’s a public and community relations specialist for the Charlotte Area Transit System. And two, she’s about to make her debut on a reality-television show that is designed, at least on some level, to make her look bad:

It’s called “Worst Cooks in America,” a long-running Food Network show that features a face-off between two teams of “the country’s most atrocious cooks” — one led by celebrity chef Bobby Flay and the other led by chef and Food Network personality Anne Burrell. The contestant who makes the biggest (positive) impression walks away with $25,000.

Season 17 premieres at 9 p.m. Aug. 4. It also features Karma Ann Moody of Hayesville, a town in Western North Carolina near the North Carolina-Georgia border.

Juliann Sheldon Food Network.jpeg
“What scared me about it is that everything that I’ve done in my life up until this point, I’ve prepared for,” Sheldon says. “And there’s absolutely nothing I could have done to prepare for standing in a kitchen with two world-class chefs about to judge me and essentially tear me apart.” Courtesy of Food Network

We spoke to Sheldon this week to get an idea of how she got her reputation for being a disaster in the kitchen, what convinced her to go on a TV show that could potentially amplify that weakness, and how her successes in other competitive arenas colored her approach to “Worst Cooks.”

(This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.)

Q. When you were growing up, was your mom good in the kitchen?

A: She’s really good in the kitchen. She’s Italian, so we grew up with lots of homemade pasta. And my grandparents were really good in the kitchen. But I hit a couple hiccups early on, and threw my hands up and just decided to leave all the cooking to my family members.

Q. What were the hiccups?

A: (Laughing.) There’s one that stands out in my mind. I was probably like 12 or 13, and I was babysitting my brother when my mom ran to the grocery store. I put a little bowl of rice in the microwave, but I forgot to put water in the bowl — and I started a fire in the kitchen. The fire department came. Oh my God, it was awful. I’ve never been in hysterics like I was that day. So that really traumatized me from ever trying to take any sort of risk in the kitchen.

Q. So your mom wasn’t real pushy about trying to teach you —

Juliann Sheldon at about age 4, with her mother, Jayne Sheldon. Courtesy of Juliann Sheldon

A: No, no. Not after that. (Laughing.) I mean, she would try and get me to come in the kitchen and help her with certain things, but at the same time, I was so distracted by other things in my life — like dancing, or putting on makeup, or dressing up — that I was just checked out. I had no desire. And again, I had these fabulous Italian cooks in my family. Why should I, when they can make everything for me?

Q. And now, as an adult, exactly how bad are you?

A: (Long sigh.)

Q. Well, let me ask you this: You have a kitchen?

A: I have a kitchen.

Q. So what do you do in the kitchen?

A: Smoke it out. Every time I’ve tried to cook in my apartment. And I’ve moved several times. In my first apartment, I blamed it on the ventilation. I was like, “Oh, the ventilation in here, it’s really bad.” Anytime I’d try and cook a dry chicken breast, smoke came billowing out of the oven.

But moving time and time again, I’m finding that OK, of course, I’m the one that is to blame for those kitchen mishaps. So yes, lots of smoke, lots of fire alarms going off, having to open up my windows.

My two poor little kitty-cats, every time the fire alarm goes off, they go scampering to hide.... Never really happens more than once a year, though — I mean, that’s all I’m ever in the kitchen. (Laughing.) And my roommate gets pretty pissed off at me.

Q. For trying to cook?

A: Oh, yeah. I can’t even heat anything up in the oven. I remember one day I put a frozen pizza in the oven, and I forgot about it, and it burnt to a total crisp. The rooms were filled with smoke, and I got a talking-to from her....

You know, the reason I think I fail so much in the kitchen is because I’m never trying to do anything simple. Like, I love eating duck. So when I started dating someone a few years ago, I was like, “This is my chance in the kitchen. I’m gonna impress them, and I’m gonna roast a duck.” And everything that could have gone wrong did. It was a whole duck. I didn’t know what I was doing. I just threw it in. It came out frozen, and then I dropped it on the floor. We’re not dating anymore, obviously. (Laughing.)

Anyway, Whole Foods moving down here to Stonewall was the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I live right at the other end of Stonewall, and just completely and totally became reliant on Whole Foods. I have hot food that I know was prepared in fairly organic way, and it’s a whole lot better than anything I’m gonna do for myself....

It wasn’t until the opportunity for the show presented itself that I was like, “Maybe I should finally face the last frontier and learn how to cook.”

Q. How did you find out about the show?

A: My mom loves the Food Network. And she’s told me for years, like, “Oh, Juliann, you should see these people. They remind me so much of you. I’m gonna nominate you for this show someday.” And then she did! Then I got a call from them, and they said, “We don’t want to be pushy, but is this something you would want to move forward with?” I’m like, “Yeah, sure, whatever.” I answered a couple questions, and filmed a quick video, never thinking that the opportunity would be offered to me. When it was — oh, I had many hesitations. I really had to think about if I wanted to put myself in that vulnerable of a position. I mean, like, what are you bad at, personally?

Q. Hmm. Math.

A: OK, imagine going on a TV show where you have to solve math problems. And not only math problems, but problems you wouldn’t even know how to begin to solve. That’s exactly how I felt going into this experience. Like, couldn’t have been more foreign to me. Terrifying....

You’re doing something you’ve never done before, in front of world-class chefs who are there to whip you into shape. So yeah, I went back and forth in my mind, but finally decided I’d like to face the fear. If there’s anytime, it’s right now. If I’m ever gonna be able to cook for a family someday, this is my opportunity.

Q. Pretty clearly, based on your past achievements in competitive realms, you’re someone who’s used to succeeding in life. In the show, you’re definitely also competing to demonstrate that you’re the best of the bunch, but this is different because you’re all starting from a place of distinct disadvantage.

“I just retired in April,” Sheldon says of her TopCats career. “I started feeling like the old girl. (Laughing.) A lot of them are 21, 22 years old, and not only from a social aspect, but my body can only handle so much. And I’m 29 and it just doesn’t work the same as it used to.” Courtesy of Juliann Sheldon

A: (Laughing.) Correct. Yes, everything I’ve ever chased after or competed for, I’ve spent hours, weeks, months, years training for — for example, Miss America, and to become a TopCat. Just hours of rigorous training and exercise, and interview preparation for Miss America, for example. And practicing my talent.

But there was absolutely no way to prepare for this. So automatically, my confidence is way lower than it would be in any other situation. And then there is that pressure of wanting to succeed. I’ve been so blessed and fortunate in my life that I have been given the opportunities that I’ve wanted, and so, yeah, this is like double the amount of pressure.

Q. And reality TV is kind of designed to try to amplify people’s foibles to begin with.

A:Absolutely. There’s a magnifying glass on every one of my faults. (Laughing.)

Q. And theoretically, even if 95 percent of the work you did on “Worst Cooks” was great ...

A: They’re gonna show the 5 percent. Ohhh, you’re giving me anxiety pangs thinking about this! Yeah, you never know what they’re gonna show, or how it will come across and be interpreted. You have no control over the narrative.

Q. You said there was no way to prepare for this, but there is kind of, right? In the sense that — so if for instance, you’re gonna go on “Survivor,” you might practice building fire or put on some weight because you know you’re gonna lose a bunch out on the island. Is there anything that you tried to do to give yourself an advantage, knowing that it could help you do well on the show?

A: Given the time frame, that was not an option. (Sheldon said there was very little time between the offer and her departure for filming.) And even if I had had ample time before the show — I mean, I haven’t taught myself to cook yet, so why would I do it now? It hasn’t succeeded up until this point. (Laughing.) So no, I really couldn’t prepare.

Q. Well, so when you got there, and you met everybody and it started becoming real — how were you feeling? What was going through your mind?

A: I was the most scared I’ve ever been in my whole life, truly.

“I am a competitive person by nature, through competing in Miss America and then trying out through the grueling audition process of becoming a TopCat,” Sheldon says. “I like goals, and I like fulfilling those goals — so naturally if there’s $25,000 on the line, I’m going to be competitive.” Courtesy of Juliann Sheldon

Q. More scared than when you’re waiting for the question, you know, on the stage at the pageant?

A:Yes, because to a certain degree I can talk my way out of that. I can’t cook my way out of this.

Q. And in terms of your goal, were you thinking, “I’m just happy to be here” or were you like, “I’m gonna try to win this thing?” What did you hope accomplish?

A: Before I even stepped in the kitchen, when I decided I wanted to do this, my goal was just to go and maybe learn something. Again, I thought, “This is my true chance to learn how to cook, and that’s what I’m gonna focus on.” The whole winning thing was sort of back of mind.

But then when you get there in the kitchen — even though there is that sense of camaraderie and we’re all sort of friendly with each other — I do want to win. I don’t like losing. So yeah, from the moment I stepped in the kitchen, I definitely wanted to win. I was focused on the finish line.

Q. Now that the experience is over, what’s your attitude toward cooking?

A: (Sighs.) I don’t think I can say that. (She is committed to not revealing any of the show’s surprises or outcomes.) I will say this, though. Truly, my biggest fear I already conquered by just getting in the kitchen. That was horrifying. And I know it sounds so stupid to people that know how to cook. But that was truly terrifying, because I’m about to show the world the thing I’m literally worst at — whereas I’m used to sort of putting my best face on. So that box is checked, and because of that, I have absolutely no regrets.

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Théoden Janes has spent 12 years covering entertainment and pop culture for the Observer. He also thrives on telling emotive long-form stories about extraordinary Charlotteans and — as a veteran of 20-plus marathons and two Ironman triathlons — occasionally writes about endurance and other sports.
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