OCEAN COUNTY – Maybe you remember the scene from the movie Miss Congeniality where Candice Bergen, who plays the Miss United States pageant director, tells the cop that it’s not a beauty pageant, “It’s a scholarship program.” Well, it is.
Until two years ago, Ocean County was not represented in either the Miss New Jersey pageant held in Ocean City for nearly three decades, or the Miss New Jersey’s Outstanding Teen pageant, which started up about 10 years ago.
Directors Geralyn and Chuck Watson have the sinking feeling that people don’t know the pageant has come back to the county, and that young women and teens have no idea how much money could be up for grabs to help finance their college education or pay off their student loans.
For the past two years, the competition has been an open one, meaning girls from anywhere in the state were allowed to compete. This year, the hope is to crown a Miss Ocean County from within the state’s sixth most populous county.
At a time when it’s estimated that nearly 44 million Americans owe over $1.45 trillion in student loan debt, the word scholarship goes a long way.
Through support from the local Ocean County community, the Watsons hope to be able to give away more money to contestants. The county pageant is also a window to the larger Miss New Jersey and Miss America competitions, which have more established sponsorships.
Last year alone, the Miss America Organization said it gave away millions in cash, scholarship assistance and tuition waivers. Although it began with a group of Atlantic City businessmen as a way to prolong the summer tourism season, the nonprofit has grown to become one of the nation’s leading advocates for women’s education and the largest provider of scholarship support to young women in the country.
“It’s not the pageant of yesterday,” said Geralyn Watson, who goes by Geri.
Bright Women, Bright Futures
North Dakota’s Cara Mund was crowned as Miss America 2018 in this year’s competition on September 9. Yes, there were gowns, swimsuits even. But Mund is also an Honors Graduate from Brown University and plans to enter law school when her year-long campaigning as Miss America and for Children’s Miracle Network is up.
She even hopes to become the first woman-elected governor of North Dakota.
The current Miss Ocean County, Olivia Suarez, is also a scholar. She graduated from Widener University in Pennsylvania with a degree focused in business management and hospitality and now works at Harrah’s Philadelphia, where she began as an intern three years ago. She now manages a restaurant and a Starbucks, and also juggles some part-time work in graphic design and makes promotional videos for artists who come to town, such as Iggy Azalea. She loves her job, of course, and can still see her old college stomping grounds from the Harrah’s parking deck.
Olivia has been volunteering since the age of 4 and said she got involved with Miss America because she wanted to volunteer, not because she wanted to be in a pageant. She was the first girl in New Jersey to take her volunteering platform international by traveling to Honduras to work with underprivileged youth – working on projects to build a library, water well and kitchen so kids there could have clean food and drinking water.
“It’s sad to see,” she said, adding that many people who live there are malnourished and have very different sanitation standards than we do.
She also started a birthday book program there, which she said was the platform of former Miss New Jersey Cara McCollum, who tragically passed away after a car accident last year. Since the children in Honduras don’t have exact birthdays, or much of anything to call their own, they would just pick a month they wanted to celebrate, then hold a fiesta and get to open a book.
Taking The Stage
So what are pageants really like? There are a lot less rules than you think, at least at the county level. Besides age, that is. For Miss Ocean County Outstanding Teen, it’s 13 to 17 years without being a graduating senior. For Miss Ocean County, it’s 17 to 24 years without turning the age of 25 before December 31, 2018.
Olivia’s evening gown, which was a one-shouldered vision in white, came from her own creative mind. She likes designing, so she often creates the designs for her dresses.
“You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars to get a gown and it shouldn’t be financially hard on a family,” said Suarez.
Geri and Olivia said it’s nice to see girls come out of their shells during the pageant process as they figure out what’s working and what’s not working, and tweak things like changing their outfit, or deciding to get healthier. Fortunately, the claws do not come out, as girls help each other and work with each other behind the scenes, especially during the teen pageant, which is more about mentoring and getting girls ready for college.
Olivia said it really is a sisterhood. She has competed in the Miss New Jersey pageant four times so far, and keeps in touch with girls at both the county and state level.
Although she will be aging out of this year’s Miss Ocean County competition, local teens and young women are invited to take the stage at the Surflight Theatre on Long Beach Island, which was generously offered as a venue for the November 5 Miss Ocean County Outstanding Teen pageant and December 3 Miss Ocean County pageant.
Through working with the American Legion, the first-ever Miss Veterans Day and Miss Veterans Day’s Outstanding Teen pageants will also be held. Those two competitions will still be open to girls and young women outside of Ocean County.
Orientations will be held at 1:30 p.m. at the Starlight Dance Studio in Manahawkin on Sunday, October 15 for Miss Ocean County Outstanding Teen and Miss Veteran’s Day Outstanding Teen, and on November 12 for Miss Ocean County and Miss Veteran’s Day.
To become a contestant, please contact 732-998-0052 or [email protected] or PO Box 283, Forked River, NJ 08731.
Local businesses should also reach out for information on how their financial assistance can help provide scholarships, or in regards to purchasing advertising in the pageant program book.