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 www.nj.com

       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 vulture.com

       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.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

3 Years Down, 3 Weeks to Go...

Hey, y'all!

I never used to say "y'all," but four years of school in the South has me a changed woman.  Additionally, three years of competing for Miss New Jersey has changed me in ways I can only begin to recognize. I thought, being that we have three weeks until Miss NJ check-in, I would reflect on some of the ways my time with the Miss America Organization has made me not only a better competitor, but a better human.

My very first year competing for Miss New Jersey, I had come off of a three year break from pageantry after competing in the Miss America's Outstanding Teen Organization.  I had seen a lot of success as a "Teen," and honestly, expected to find the same in "Miss."  I competed for Miss Seashore Line, and outright lost. I say this not because I'm bitter, but because that experience made me better.  I did not win a single preliminary award, place as a runner up, or win a title in the triple-crown pageant.  That first local changed my perspective and taught me that no one can expect to succeed in this Organization just because 1. they have succeeded before or 2. they have worked hard.  Everyone works hard.  Everyone puts in the time and effort it takes to be a competitor.  I left that first pageant accepting the fact that perseverance is the key to success, which would prove to help me for years to come.

After winning a local title and securing my spot in the Miss New Jersey 2013 competition, I counted down the days until my first Miss NJ week.  When it finally came, I was itching with excitement and looking forward to having the time of my life.  I woke up each morning thrilled to find out what the day would bring and was utterly shocked to make the top five on Saturday night.  I was lucky enough to hold Cara McCollum's hands as she found out she would be the next Miss New Jersey.  Today, I feel even luckier than I did that night to have shared such a special moment with such an impactful woman.

I entered my second year determined to be "Carol's girl" and secure the Miss Seashore Line title.  Not only did I secure my spot for the state competition by winning that title, I secured a new family member in Carol Taylor.  It's no secret that Carol is a New Jersey pageant legend with her honest opinions and ability to make any crowd laugh with her sarcastic humor.  She hates her picture taken, but I snuck a few during our time together and ultimately, was lucky enough to place first-runner up to Cierra Kaler-Jones at Miss NJ 2014.  This was the year that I was reminded that you can work hard and do your best, but at the end of the night, lots of girls have done the same.  Cierra captivated the judges and was an incredibly active and inspiring Miss New Jersey.  I am glad to have been able to watch her reign and to have the opportunity to learn from her generous heart.  Again, perseverance is key.
I entered my third year in hopes that I could represent my home county, Gloucester.  I won the title and with it, my pageant sister, Kelcie.  We had become friends our first year at Miss NJ as roommates, but this year together brought us even closer.  We worked tirelessly at the gym, in mock interviews, in our communities, and watched countless hours of state pageant DVDs and Miss America top five interviews.  Our directors, Tracy and Sandi, became family and we enjoyed spending every waking moment together!
We also somehow managed to unintentionally match at every single appearance for a year straight...
As this was my third year vying for the title and I was feeling the pressure of being 1st runner-up twice in a row, Kelcie developed a sixth sense for my stress.  She would look at me and say, "stop thinking so much."  It's not every day that you find a friend so in tune with your own thoughts that they actually read your mind.  I will always be thankful for Kelcie's calming demeanor and silly antics for keeping me sane.  This year I learned that stress and pressure are detrimental to not only success, but to your own happiness.  I was so worried about doing better than I had in previous years (aka the only other option would be winning...) that I was unable to enjoy my time.  Placing 2nd runner-up was a blessing in disguise- I finally felt the weight of pressure fall off my shoulders.  I had done "worse" than I had before, and I was fine- breathing, smiling, walking in 6 inch heels.  I learned my third year at Miss New Jersey that not winning wouldn't kill me.

This year, I am happy to say that I am at perfect peace with the experiences I've had and the work I've done.  I have enjoyed getting the opportunity to be "Carol's girl" again and cherish every moment I spend with my directors, pageant sisters, fellow contestants, and pageant family.  Through years of success, rejection, smiles, and tears, I have learned that while hard work and perseverance are necessary, so is happiness.  For three years I have worked hard and persevered in this organization, and for the next three weeks I will continue to do so and to focus all my energy on trusting in the process and enjoying my time.

21 days until the next Miss New Jersey week begins and I cannot wait to see what lessons I'll learn alongside my fellow contestants!