Former Miss Tennessee is still signing autographs
Everybody knows Leah Hulan, or at least it seems that way if you have lunch with her in a downtown restaurant.
Total strangers come up and introduce themselves, ask if they can have a picture taken with her, and want her autograph. Old friends stop to say hi to the former Miss Tennessee and Miss Tennessee USA (she was both).
One reason Hulan is so well-known is that her picture is on billboards all over Middle Tennessee. She's the platinum blonde "Grumpy" of Grumpy's Bail Bonds.
Her office at 206 High St. in Lebanon is one of the most recently opened. In fact, she just bought it in September. Carri Carter works for Hulan as the Lebanon agent in that office.
Hulan expanded Grumpy's into Wilson County about a year ago, also sponsoring wrestling shows at the Gladeville Community Center. But now she has co-founded her own wrestling organization called the Arcadian Wrestling Association, so she's been seen on posters for that as well.
'Best friend from Wilson'
Other folks remember hearing her speak when she was Miss Tennessee a few years ago, where she says she met her best friend Kimberly Ashe Reichard, the niece of former sheriff and District 12 County Commissioner Terry Ashe.
The two met when Reichard was Miss Wilson County and Hulan was Miss MTSU back in 1990.
So how did a talented beauty queen come to own and operate a bail bonding business? Hulan explains that she and her husband Kevin Davis became interested in bail bonding after he lost his regular job in 2001.
At the time, the couple was working with delinquent kids in a program called YCAP, teaching Bible classes for the kids.
'Helped kids in jail'
Some of those kids told them about three other juveniles who had been charged with armed robbery and tried as adults. The three were in adult jail but were kept isolated from the other prisoners.
They asked if Hulan and Davis would go do Bible classes with them. "So we went to the jail almost every day to teach Bible study," she recalls.
While doing the classes, she realized that bondmen could be a positive influence on accused prisoners, so she and Davis decided to start a bail bond business - but with a twist or two.
The most obvious is Grumpy's flamboyant marketing style, with catchy slogans like "You ring, we spring," Grumpy's "faster than toast" TV ad campaign, and Hulan's buxom picture on the bail bonder's billboards.
But the other twist is Grumpy's serious side, Hulan confides.
"We decided we would work at developing a relationship with the prisoners and began connecting them with other resources," she explains - resources such as Alcoholics Anonymous, counseling and job training.
In fact, Grumpy's has an AA suite built into its offices in Franklin. She adds that the training she received as Miss Tennessee made it easy for her to promote her new business. "And I wanted it to be game-changing for the industry, too," she says.
The MTSU alumnus, beauty queen and military intelligence officer-turned-entrepreneur now has eight offices and serves 35 different counties in the Middle Tennessee region. She supervises 40 agents and has 15 other employees.
Her husband works with finding "runners" or bail jumpers and spends time when she's on the road taking care of the couple's 9-year-old daughter Laila.
'Becoming Miss Tennessee'
Actually, Hulan competed for Miss Tennessee and/or Miss Tennessee USA three different times. The first time she was Miss MTSU 1990 and placed as first runner-up for Miss Tennessee that year.
She had been the ROTC representative in the MTSU competition, and the Army gave her a deferment from reporting for duty immediately after graduation to compete in the Miss Tennessee pageant.
She went from the pageant runway to Fort Huachuca, home of the US Army Intelligence Center in Arizona, in eight hours flat.
"They let me compete, then they whisked me away to Arizona," she describes. "I went from sequins to khakis. But I was still wearing my hair in the same bun I had worn in the contest when I reported for duty."
She's '1st Lt. Hulan'
Her Army career took her to the rank of first lieutenant and again, helped her learn skills she uses now. She says her military service and promotion is her proudest accomplishment - even though after that, she became one of only three young women to ever win both the Miss Tennessee and Miss Tennessee USA pageants.
When she came back to Tennessee from the Army, "I was still young enough to compete in Miss Tennessee pageants," she explains, so she tried again and this time, took home the 1992 crown and went on to the Miss America pageant.
Hulan spent that year traveling the state as Miss Tennessee, using her position to encourage young people not to use drugs and - as soon as they were old enough - to exercise their right to vote. But she decided there was still more she could accomplish as a representative of her state.
'In Miss USA Top 12'
So next, Hulan competed for Miss Tennessee USA, and again won, taking the 1994 tiara. She went on to compete in the Miss USA pageant, placing among the Top 12 finalists for 1994 (YouTube has the video), and again played the role of a statewide pageant queen that year.
By the end of this time, she was in trouble. In order to stay slender for her role, she had been bingeing and purging to lose weight. She says she spent about three years, off and on, in hospitals getting both her physical and emotional health back on track.
She has also written a book about her struggle with her bingeing-and-purging eating disorder. It's called "Pain behind the Smile: My Battle with Bulimia," and it's available at Amazon.com.
Hulan is a woman of enthusiasms. Her most recent one is professional wrestling. It started when Grumpy's Bail Bonds started sponsoring wrestling to support charities in the communities where it has offices.
She met a pro wrestler named Chase Stevens. He wanted to see wrestling be all it could be, and so did she. They've formed a business partnership, the Arcadian Wrestling Association, and are promoting shows all over Middle Tennessee.
"We plan to use better lighting, sound and the best talent to take wrestling back to its heyday," Hulan says. "We want to offer fans a truly great show."
She agrees with Stevens that wrestling is scripted but "it's not fake. They are athletes second to none competing to win. And that's what we want you to see."
She and the wrestlers dress as Greek gods and goddesses for the show as well, and sometimes it even includes a life-size dragon.
Hulan says she's been to a few mixed martial arts matches but finds them too hard to watch. "The objective is to seriously hurt your opponent," she says. "In wrestling, the objective is to pin them down."
She and beefy Chase Stevens make a good team for this endeavor, Hulan adds. "He's the expert on wrestling, and I'm the expert on publicity and business," she says.
Although she admits that sometimes she's compared to Reese Witherspoon in "Legally Blonde," more often someone calls her "the Dolly Parton of bail bonding."
Hulan says, "I like that best, because not only do I admire Dolly Parton for her looks, she's a really smart businesswoman."
So are you, Leah Hulan. So are you.
Writer Connie Esh can be contacted at email@example.com.