Monday, May 1, 2017

The Beginning of the End

This past weekend the Miss New Jersey Class of 2017 gathered for their orientation.  Saturday morning they teased their hair and glued on eyelashes, all while fighting the butterflies in their stomachs.  Maybe the butterflies were excitement to see their friends and maybe they were nervous butterflies- which number will I be?  Will I mess up my talent?  Will I fit in?  Maybe the butterflies were a result of too much caffeine in their morning coffee.

For four years, I felt those familiar butterflies as I woke up on orientation day.  This year was not a whole lot different.  As an almost-has-been, my stomach was not void of butterflies.  I have spent (almost) an entire year speaking off the cuff, giving advice, and meeting strangers in the hopes of making a good impression.  I kept wondering why, with all of this experience under my belt, was I still nervous?  Upon further consideration, I've decided that nervousness exists, not for a lack of preparation, but for an understanding of importance.  I knew that there was so much I wanted to say to these women- so many stories I could tell and so much advice to give.  How could I possibly explain to them what this year has been like and how could I help them best prepare to take over my job?  The truth is, no one can prepare for becoming Miss New Jersey.
As amazingly talented, intelligent, and articulate all of the contestants are, none of them are fully prepared to be Miss New Jersey.  That sounds harsh- let me explain.

I say this, not as an insult, but as a fact.  That is, because there are days when I'm still not fully prepared to be Miss New Jersey.  No one can prepare for the unpredictability and the pressure that comes with being a state titleholder.  Each day brings a new challenge and the reality is that even after 315 days of service, I'm still striving to be a better Miss New Jersey every day.  
One of the greatest lessons I've learned this year was understanding that you can't please everyone.  Being someone who is simultaneously a perfectionist, control freak, people pleaser, justice seeker, and peace keeper, makes for quite the internal struggle.  I'm the type of person who yells at someone for not using their turn signal and then feels guilty because they might have already been having a bad day.

This type of internal conflict has come up often throughout my reign.  I struggle to be the Miss New Jersey that everyone likes and the Miss New Jersey that makes a difference- I used to think that you could be both.  I know now that making a difference sometimes requires a bit of discomfort and a lot of courage.  Every time I decide that I'm going to stand my ground and appease the justice seeker in me, I have to accept the fact that the people pleaser in me won't be happy.  So where is the happy medium?  As one of my Miss America Class of 2017 sisters said, you must be 100% fire and 100% at peace...fighting for what you want and what you deem "right," but understanding that the mere fact that you've done that is enough and you can't please everyone.  I think no one can prepare for being a state titleholder because every new obstacle gives you new insight that helps you evolve and exceed your own 100%.
That being said, I looked out at a crowd of women on Saturday knowing that they have the determination and grit to take on the unpredictability, the internal conflict, and the unforgettable experiences.  I saw difference makers, people pleasers, justice seekers, perfectionists, comedians,  introverts, and everyone in between.  The truth is, you cannot prepare to be Miss New Jersey, but you can strive each day to be your best self.  To me, accepting and nurturing all of the aspects of your personality is the only way to do that.  While closing this chapter of my life will be nostalgic and scary, I know with absolute certainty that it has had an irrevocable impact on my life.  Here's to another month and a half of discovery and learning!

Monday, January 30, 2017

Confidently Beautiful (& so much more)

       At last night’s Miss Universe pageant, Miss Canada secured a spot in the “top 9,” which allowed her to compete in both swimsuit and eveningwear.  She modeled a hot pink bikini, smiling all the while.
       The emcee enlightened both the live and television audiences about Siera Bearchell, announcing that her family suffered a tragic house fire years ago and that she is currently in her final year of law school.  Despite Siera’s obvious ability to overcome obstacles, her clear intelligence, and the mere fact that she is competing on an International stage, some still found it appropriate to criticize her physique (criticize seems too polite a word- let’s go with verbally attack).  They berated her, calling her “lazy,” “underprepared,” and claimed she had no business on the Miss Universe stage.  Besides what I see as a clear violation of human decency, these comments are a direct attack on the progress the pageant community has made in the last 100 (ish) years. 
       For most of my life, I have defended my involvement in pageantry, citing women empowerment, increases in confidence, scholarship opportunity, speaking experience, friendship, and overall self-betterment.  I feel offended by folks (including former and current titleholders) who claim that because Siera chose to enter a “beauty pageant,” she should expect the aforementioned criticism.  While I can’t speak to why Siera personally chose to compete in the Miss Universe Organization, I like to think that most (if not all) of my fellow pageant competitors participate for reasons that transcend the acknowledgment of physical perfection.  To assert that someone deserves to be publically shamed for her appearance (which by the way is healthy and in my opinion, gorgeous) simply because she chose to partake in the pageant is narrow-minded and presumptuous.  To believe that she cannot be "spectacular" or "inspiring" because she is not "unattainably beautiful," is actually heartbreaking.
       Yes- I realize that swimsuit is a portion of the competition and therefore, should be taken seriously by all contestants.  I have donned a bikini and modeled for more than ten separate panels of judges in the last few years.  
Photo: Richard Krauss Photography
       I understand that physical fitness and personal health is an important aspect of leading a successful life.  That being said, I argue that psychological and emotional health is equally as important.  Finding a balance between an appealing physical appearance and a positive mental state is not easy.  I have been there.  I have struggled to find equilibrium.  It is not my place to critique the choices one makes to achieve their ideal balance.  Pageant judges in the Miss America Organization are instructed to objectively observe and make conclusions about a contestant’s swimsuit presentation using the following instructions:

"The Lifestyle and Fitness in Swimsuit competition is designed to see how well the contestant maintains a lifestyle of good physical, emotional and intellectual health.  The contestant’s sense of confidence and presence, as well as her drive, energy, charisma and composure are to be likewise considered."

       Please note that the Miss America Organization script in no way posits that a contestant should achieve any particular shape nor should she subscribe to a socially accepted version of the female figure.
     While I have never competed in the Miss Universe Organization myself, I did some digging to find this response to the frequently asked question, “What is the Miss Universe Organization looking for in a contestant?”  Their answer is as follows: “A contestant much be confident.  She must be able to demonstrate authenticity and articulate her ambitions as a titleholder.  The competitions showcase and evaluate the contestant’s aspirations and are judged by accomplished business leaders, philanthropists, and public figures.”
       Where does the MUO itself suggest that their titleholder must meet some pre-conceived notions of beauty?  I’m not denying that there isn’t an unwritten understanding that beauty impacts the competition results.  I just cannot comprehend how anyone defends hurtful comments with the argument that a person's physique determines how beautiful they are.  Don’t we want more for our society and our fellow females?  I’m proud of how far the MUO has come in promoting their contestants’ accomplishments and goals, independent of their body types.  Miss Canada’s placement as a semi-finalist means that judges took into account that not all of her bones were visible, and still saw her as a "top 9" contestant.  Perhaps they took into account that Siera tailored her health regimen for what best suits her desires- mentally and physically. 
       During my interview at Miss America I was asked how I felt about a “plus-size model,” Ashley Graham, gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Edition.  I explained that I’m glad SI is promoting another body image and letting women know that all shapes and sizes are beautiful.  My answer was followed up with another question asking something to the effect of, “but don’t you think she promotes a negative idea of health to young girls?”  I replied that because I cannot accurately predict her personal diet and workout regimen by simply looking at her body in a magazine, I had no business in commenting on her health.  I could eat the same food and participate in the same workouts as 10 other women and we would all look different.  She promotes an image of acceptance and self-love and I can get on board with that.  Was this an answer the judges wanted to hear?  Perhaps not.  I still stand by it.  If Miss Canada feels confident in her swimsuit and found her personal balance of maintaining psychological well being while striving for physical health, who are we to comment?  The judges at Miss Universe saw her beauty and her positive light and they rewarded her for it.  It doesn’t mean that the public should feel free to call her “lazy” or “undeserving,” just like it doesn’t mean the contestants of smaller stature shouldn’t be labeled “anorexic,” and muscular contestants shouldn’t be deemed “too bulky.”  
       We are all fighting an internal battle- pageant girls are not immune.  Think before you type.  It’s a simple phrase that I teach to schoolchildren.  Treat others the way you wish to be treated- regardless of whether you’re speaking out loud or typing on a keyboard.  Understand that the women on your television screen are living, breathing human beings.  They deserve to be treated with compassion; regardless of what competition they join.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Lessons Learned

       Tomorrow, we crown a new Miss New Jersey's Outstanding Teen.  This is significant and exciting to me for various reasons.  First and foremost, I'm elated to have the opportunity to form a relationship with a new "little sister!"  I've always taken the mentorship aspect of the Miss America Organization very seriously and look forward to getting to know our new titleholder- her strengths, talents, thoughts, quirks, sense of humor, favorite ice cream flavor (obviously), and so much more.  I feel so strongly about bonding with my teen counterpart because so many others did the same for me.  This brings me to the other reason for my excitement- 8 years ago, I was that young impressionable girl.  I won Miss NJOT when I was just 15 years old.  I looked to local, state, and national MAO titleholders for inspiration and advice.  I was guided through some extremely difficult years by women who were confident, poised, and kind.  Crowning a new teen reminds me of the journey I went on so many years ago.
       My years in the MAOTeen and MAO pageant world have shaped me.  The people I have met and experiences I've had gave me a solid foundation on which to build my adult life.  I was recently reminded just how much the NJOTeen title prepared me for the Miss New Jersey title when I saw this picture photographed and posted by Richard Krauss:
       I realized that while my ability to tease my hair (thankfully) improved, my core values and ambitions have remained.  Below are just a few of the things I've learned in my experiences as both Miss New Jersey's Outstanding Teen and Miss New Jersey.

Your fan club will grow- sometimes exponentially.  Remember those who have stuck with you through it all and appreciate those who join along the way.

White shorts are probably a bad choice, but you will inevitably wear them for the toe dip.  I can remember how honored I felt to actually participate in the Miss New Jersey tradition- I never imagined that I might someday get to do it again.  Keep your hopes high and dreams big.

Packing never changes.  Packing is always impossible and stressful.  Learn to accept over-packing and carry heavy luggage ;)

 Always take the opportunity to chat with Miss America- she will leave you feeling awe-inspired and proud to be part of such a prestigious organization.

It's never too early to start visualizing your dreams- don't let anything discourage you from pursuing your goal.

Adventure.  Experience.  Laugh in between.

Never take for granted the people who stay by your side.  Realize how much they add to your life and appreciate all they do to keep you sane (and in Sally's case, laughing).

Never let go of the post you're meant to hold on a float- it isn't there for decoration.  Also, realize how  cool it is that you get to take part in such an historic event.

Learn how wonderful it is to represent the community that raised you.  I was asked multiple times if I planned to compete in North Carolina once I became eligible for the "Miss" division and began attending High Point University.  I knew I was a Jersey girl at heart and am forever grateful I stuck around.

 For goodness sake, learn to love your body.  Do push-ups because you like a challenge or because opening the pickle jar by yourself is pretty cool.  I don't care why - just take care of yourself mentally and physically.  The older you get, the harder and more important it is.  Abs may fade, but self love will never get old.

Never (I repeat) NEVER let competition distract you from the most important aspect of the MAO- sisterhood.  I have some of the fondest memories from Miss America's Outstanding Teen 2010 with Savvy girl.......she's Miss America now.......and I saw it happen on stage at Boardwalk Hall.  These friendships that began when were just such babies will last a lifetime.  Cherish them.

Learn how to lose.  Understand that you can perform at 100% and still go home without a crown.  Be happy for the woman who represents you and lift her up.  You'll never know what it truly means to win if you can't first learn to lose with grace.

Soak in every moment.  Before you know it, your competitive pageant career will be over.  The memories and friendships will last forever- nurture them and be grateful.


Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Continuing Cara's Legacy

       Each time I drive to a charity event, appearance, sponsor visit, or local pageant, I think through the event and what I'll be expected to speak about while in attendance.  I go over my talking points, sometimes in silence, sometimes blasting pump-up music, sometimes talking aloud to myself.  I reflect on what that particular day means for me as a spokesperson for not only the Miss New Jersey Education Foundation, but for the Miss America Organization as a whole.  Today, my car ride was more emotional than usual.  I drove myself to Atco Elementary School where I would soon hand books to the students on behalf of my friend and Miss New Jersey sister, Cara McCollum.  I would speak about the platform Cara created, long before a pageant platform was required of her.  I would tell teachers, the press, and students about how Cara had a vision for the future of literacy.  I knew I would look into the faces of 6-year-old children and think of how Cara would smile back at them.  Car rides like today are rare because I felt the weight of my words and actions more than ever.
       As Miss New Jersey, I'm not only a spokesperson and an ambassador, but I'm responsible for the upkeep of some truly incredible legacies.  I was reminded about how powerful a legacy can be while my car radio played "Fight Song" by Rachel Platten.  She sings, "I might only have one match, but I can make an explosion."  I wondered if Cara knew just how explosive her impact would be on the world. She began The Birthday Book Project in hopes of putting age-appropriate books in the hands of underprivileged children on their birthdays.  She believed that literacy was a gift and wanted others to understand the impact that reading could have on their lives.  After Cara's passing, her work family at SNJToday with the help of her biological family made the Birthday Book Project a certified non-profit organization.  The Miss New Jersey Education Foundation has partnered with Citgo Petroleum Corporation and Bess the Book Bus to provide the 501c3 with thousands of books to distribute to Title 1 schools in New Jersey.  Last night local titleholders, Miss New Jersey board members and directors, along with myself got together to wrap children's books in preparation for delivery.  Today, the folks of SNJToday and I presented Atco Elementary School with 208 books.  In preparing my talking points this morning, I not only reminded myself of those logistical facts and figures, but reminded myself of the way Cara's match became an explosion, thanks to her philanthropic heart.  I cannot possibly explain how grateful I am to be a part of continuing my sister's legacy.  Being Miss New Jersey has given me countless opportunities, but the most rewarding of them has been learning from the women who came before me.  I can't stop wishing that Cara could have heard the squeals of joy and seen the looks of excitement from the students at Atco Elementary School today.  I hope that somehow, she knows just how many lives she's changing, including mine.

Monday, September 19, 2016

What I Learned at Miss America

About one week ago, In a matter of a few minutes, my dream to become Miss America ended.  For upwards of ten years I worked toward that ultimate goal, and after a few on-air minutes plus two commercial breaks, fate revealed that my pageant career was over.  It may sound harsh but we, as pageant girls, all understand the reality of competition.  Rather than questioning why I didn't "make the cut" or what I could have done differently, I decided to accept the situation.  "Decide" might be giving me a little too much credit.  None of us really have a choice, you see.  All 37 contestants who realize what I did- that it wasn't going to happen for us- we have no choice but to accept the situation.  Live television dictates that, as we are expected to remain on stage to watch 15 other women vie for the title we all so desperately want.  The acceptance is both freeing and painful.  On one hand, we can relax and enjoy the show without quick changes or critique.  On the other hand, we remember all of the sacrifices made and work that was done to not be on this side of things.  I remember thinking to myself when things got tough, "do you want to be one of the 37 left standing?" What a horrible thought.  Then, the thought of sitting on stage and watching the competition go on without me was enough to drive me mad.  But after actually living it- sitting on stage with 36 of my sisters, cheering on 15 of our class- I feel nothing but honor and gratitude.  Now, when I ask myself, "do you want to be one of the 37 left standing?" my answer is obvious- of course I do.  Of the 8,000 women who compete for Miss America local, state, and national pageants yearly, I was one of the 52 who had the privilege to compete for the coveted Miss America title.  Of those 8,000 contestants, I was one of 51 who got to stand on stage and watch as history was made and another remarkable young woman was crowned.  Of those 8,000 contestants, I am one who has the chance to use her title for good and make a difference.  I have always been aware of how lucky I am to just be a part of this organization, but my experience at Miss America truly showed me just how amazing being Miss New Jersey is- regardless of placement or awards.  I learned that something you dream about for ten years doesn't have to be what you dream about for the rest of your life.  I learned that dreams are meant to be chased, and when they are no longer attainable, new dreams should be dreamt.  I learned that no title or trophy can replace what I know in my heart to be true- I am enough, as just Brenna.

My heart is full thinking about the friends I made in Atlantic City.  I am so incredibly excited to watch my friend, Savvy's year unfold as she serves our nation as Miss America 2017.  There have never been and will never be enough words to say "thank you" to all of you who deserve thanks.  I will never forget the way you all make me feel like Miss America every day.  My year as Miss New Jersey will be jam-packed with service opportunities, local pageants, appearances, children's hospital visits, platform presentations, fashion shows, drives up the turnpike, and picture taking.  I am determined to do good in the world and make as many people breathe easier as I can, not only while I'm Miss New Jersey, but for the rest of my life.  I hope you'll join me.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

What Makes a Jersey Girl

       During the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, Laurie Hernandez won a gold medal in the women's team all-around competition.  Before she performed her balance beam routine, she whispered to herself, "I got this."  Before she performed her floor routine, she winked at the judges.  Before she became an olympian, she grew up in Old Bridge, New Jersey.
Photo courtesy of

       She may be winning hearts across the world, but New Jersians are quick to claim the confident, bubbly athlete as our own.  I had always known that Jersey girls were a different breed of sorts, but I could never put my finger on why or how- until I watched coverage of Laurie's time in Rio.  Jersey girls have a spunk that can't be replicated.  It's a sort of attitude that I've seen in my fellow pageant competitors as well as my non-pageant friends.  It's Laurie Hernandez winking at her judges before soaring through the air to secure a gold medal.
GIf courtesy of

       While I prepare for any pageant, I try to pinpoint what makes me capable of not only winning a title, but what makes me worthy of representing the title all year.  At a local pageant or the Miss New Jersey pageant, I work to prove that I can handle the duties- performing a talent, promoting a platform, representing a county or state.  Miss America, like the olympics, is on a whole new level.  Each pageant contestant, like olympic athletes, are the cream of the crop.  What sets me apart?  What makes me most worthy of representing our nation?  I hope that in one month, I can prove that it's the unique spunk that each Jersey girl, including Laurie Hernandez, has, which makes me prepared to be Miss America.  If you see me whisper "I got this" to myself before I walk on stage, just know that I'm channeling my inner Laurie- my inner Jersey girl.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

"Even Miracles Take a Little Time"

           With my Miss America paperwork officially submitted, the fact that I’m Miss New Jersey has finally begun to set in.  So many people have asked me “how did you feel?” when I realized I had won. I had always day-dreamed about what it would feel like, being that I had come so close for three years.  I wondered if I would be in disbelief, if I would cry (I’m known to be a tad bit unemotional), and if it would ever happen for me at all.  It’s near impossible to accurately predict how you’ll react to such life-changing news.  All I knew, for many years, is that if I ever won Miss New Jersey, I would make a point to acknowledge my first runner-up and the rest of the women I competed alongside.  I’m glad that while I was wrong in thinking I wouldn’t cry, that I was right in thinking I would remember to tell my first runner-up how amazing she is.  

The women who competed for Miss New Jersey each hold such a special place in my heart.  We come from different walks of life, but we share some extremely important qualities: perseverance, civic-mindedness, and respect for one another.  Each of my fellow contestants showed me nothing but love and kindness both during Miss New Jersey week and after I was crowned.  I entered the dressing room after the pageant and found my things packed and organized, courtesy of my friends who knew I would be eager to see my fan club waiting outside.  This, in itself, disproves the common misconception that pageant girls are catty and pretentious.  I’m proud to represent a group of outstanding ladies, and I will always remember to honor them this year.

            On Sunday morning, I woke up an hour before my alarm and began to prepare for the traditional Miss New Jersey toe-dip.  I was able to speak with members of the press, see my family, and enjoy my first official appearance.  

I knew that Miss District of Columbia was being crowned that afternoon, so I ran home to change and made my way to DC!  I loved being able to watch another state competition (even though I might have been falling asleep in my seat during intermission).  

I’ve had my official Miss New Jersey photo shoot with the legendary Richard Krauss, met with the phenomenal Jill Horner to complete my Miss America paperwork and appear on Comcast Newsmakers, visited Coco’s Chateau to start the search for my Miss America competition gown, had a meeting with my business manager, Mary Lou (along with endless phone calls J), trained several times with our fitness sponsor, Training Aspects, and have already had several appearances, including meeting the new Miss Pennsylvania (thank you SO much to the Miss PA board for welcoming me with open arms and treating me like royalty)! Sally and I have traveled (laughing all the way) up and down the state for several fun appearances.  One of my favorites thus far was the “Coffee with a Cop” event in Pitman.  Last year, I attended the event as Miss Gloucester County and loved meeting community members and spending time with the boys in blue.  The Pitman Police Department not only works to protect and serve, but they take time to build a positive relationship with community members.  I was happy to be able to join this event again and look forward to future partnerships!

            In the midst of this whirlwind, I want to thank so many people for their support and for believing in me.  I have been part of this organization for the past 8 years and will never be able to express my gratitude for all those who’ve impacted me- but now, I will try:
            Thank you to the 65 members of “Team Brenna” who don matching t-shirts on the boardwalk for the parade, take time off of work to be the loudest group in the music pier, and for never losing heart these past four years.  You believed in me when I forgot to believe in myself and show me more love than I deserve. 

            Thank you to both Mantua Township and Pitman, the places I call home, for your support and congratulations.  From being featured at Ponte’s Point with Potman to the congratulatory message on the Chestnut Branch sign (Thank you, Mr. Zimmerman!), to every person who has personally reached out to me, I am overwhelmed with gratitude.

            Thank you to the people who helped prepare me for Miss New Jersey, whether it be choosing and altering gowns (Debbie), keeping me physically and emotionally strong (Ki and the rest of the people at Training Aspects), helping me perfect each outfit and letting me use studio space to practice walking (everyone at Tricia Sloan Dance Center), and all those who provided sponsored competition attire for each of the contestants (Irene West for the swimsuits and Dorothy Palumbo for the opening number Sherri Hill dresses!).

            Thank you, to the moon and back, to my local pageant family, otherwise known as the Shore Family.  Each director volunteered their time and energy week after week to judge six titleholders in mock interviews, help us make empowering wardrobe choices, and lift us up all year long.  Carol- thank you for loving me unconditionally, letting me drink milkshakes (sometimes) and making me feel like Miss America every day.  You will never know how loved you are by so many of us girls.  My Jaime (and the Gialloreto clan)- thank you for truly becoming my sister this year.  You are everything I could ever ask for in a teen titleholder and I refuse to believe you’re already a Miss! From holding onto each other for dear life on the Seashore Line train, to taking you to your driver’s test (and exploring Salem), and everything in between, I will always cherish the time I spend with you.

            Lastly, to my fellow contestants- thank you for representing the Miss America Organization with grace and humility.  Thank you for showing your community members what a Miss America should be.  Thank you for the laughs, snack breaks, work out sessions, selfies, butt glue checks, and hugs.  We’re all for one, and one for all. 
            In my Miss New Jersey interview this year, I felt like it went by in a matter of 3 minutes.  The past two weeks feel like they have gone by in a matter of three days.  If pageantry has taught me nothing else, it is to cherish each moment you have and to hold those you love close.  Pictures fade, crowns tarnish, but these experiences are invaluable to me.  I am inexplicably honored to be your Miss New Jersey 2016 and will seize each opportunity to represent our state with poise, integrity, and love.