BLOOMFIELD, NJ — A preliminary beauty pageant for the crown of Miss New Jersey will be held at Bloomfield Middle School on Jan. 28. Sponsored by the Miss Essex County Scholarship Program, the title of Miss Essex County is a regional award and open to women ages 17 to 24 who reside in Essex, Hudson, Union, Morris, Sussex, Passaic or Warren counties.
Bloomfield has had several representatives who reigned as Miss New Jersey. Most recently, Debra Naley-Minenna, a former Bloomfield teacher, who was Miss New Jersey in 1981.
Naley-Minenna, 61, currently a resident of Rockaway, in Morris County, taught music and band from 1977 to 1990 in the South Junior High School and later at the middle school. Her future husband, Paul Minenna, was a general science teacher in the same two schools with her. They were married in June of 1986.
In a recent telephone interview, she said her involvement with beauty pageants began while she was in college at Glassboro State College, now Rowan University. She said the girls in her dormitory wanted a representative for the title of Miss Glassboro State 1975 and encouraged her to run. She did.
“I had an opportunity to play my violin,” she said. “The pageant included swimsuit, gown and an interview. I didn’t win.”
The contest was a preliminary for the title of Miss New Jersey and although she did not win and advance toward the state title, beauty pageants made her realize that there were opportunities available to women who competed in them.
“I thought it was just a little thing,” she said.
At the time, a woman could enter a beauty pageant for a countywide title if she lived, worked or went to school in the county. Naley-Minenna, who graduated from Morris Highs High School in 1973, and was a Morris County resident while in college, next entered and the pageant for Miss Morris County 1975 and won. She said it is common for young women to enjoy their pageant experience and return to competing.
“The best part was that I won a $1,000 scholarship,” she said of her Morris County title. “That was almost a whole year of college.”
In 1979, while attending Kean University in preparation to enter Rutgers University for an MBA, Naley-Minenna said she entered and won Miss Union County 1979. For this, she received a $500 scholarship which she applied to her tuition at Rutgers. And she got to play her violin.
“I liked playing,” she said. “I’m a violinist. I had a captive audience.”
She was not finished, of course. Because she worked in Essex County, she entered and won the title of Miss Essex County 1980. She said the scholarship was $300. But the benefits of competing could not be measured.
“It was wonderful,” she said. “I thought I was shy. Competing gave me an opportunity to meet with people, and speak with them, and play my violin.”
The next year, 1981, she again entered and won Miss Morris County. She received a $1,000 scholarship that went toward her master’s. She also catapulted to the title of Miss New Jersey that year. For this title, the scholarship money, Naley-Minenna recalled, was between $2,000 and $3,000.
“I got the use of a car for that year, too,” she said. “It was a Honda Accord and had ‘Miss New Jersey’ painted on it. I drove it to work.”
As Miss New Jersey, she was kept busy in addition to her duties as a Bloomfield music teacher.
“I was speaking here, performing there, at a ribbon cutting,” she said. “There was about an appearance a week.”
She recalled one official appearance. It was at the Bloomfield McDonald’s on the Parkway. “I was hired to do the ribbon cutting and McDonalds invited my junior high school band to come and play,” she said “They wore the band uniforms, the blue & white school colors, with snow boots. The snow was so bad that school was closed but all the band members came anyway. They even played the McDonald’s theme song. It was a great day for all of us.”
She competed for the crown of Miss America 1982.
“The Bloomfield Board of Education recognized me at a board meeting,” she said “And my students were so supportive and so excited to have seen me on a national television broadcast”
Although she did not win, her violin playing distinguished her.
“At Miss America, I won a non-finalist talent award,” she said. “The highest scoring contestants in talent that did not make the top 10 were given that. I think every year, at least a few violins make it to Miss America. You usually see more piano players and opera singers.”
The talent award provided her with a $1,000 scholarship but her pageant days were all behind her.
“Once you’re in Miss America, you’re competition is over,” she said.
In 1990, Naley-Minenna left the Bloomfield School District and took a school administrative position in Essex Fells.
She retired in 2012, having worked 22 years as an administrator in several school districts. But she remains active in pageants. She is the director of field operations for the Miss New Jersey organization. She said pageants have kept up with the times: questions have become more relevant and young women are expected to be socially engaged. Naley-Minenna believes this need for contestants to be involved with the community at-large is the result of Miss America 1988, Kaye Lani Rae Rafko. Naley-Minenna said Rafko made visiting AIDS patients her personal cause.
“That’s my perspective,” Naley-Minenna said. “She was the impetus.”
The Miss America pageant is currently partnering with the Children’s Miracle Network, she said. This non-profit organization raises money for children’s hospitals. The affiliation between the pageant and the non-profit provides the contestants with an opportunity to have a social platform. Naley-Minenna also said that a Miss America title holder, during her reign, makes about two personal appearances a day.
“Most young women don’t call it a beauty pageant,” she said. “People don’t say, ‘Pick me because I’m beautiful.’ They’re saying, ‘Look at what I’ve accomplished and how hard I’ve worked.’”
And she said what is inside of a woman, how she feels about herself and what she represents, is recognized by the judges.
“Many people will say the swimsuit competition is a throwback,” she said. “But that is part of the history. Contestants are being judged by how they project their personality across the footlights.”
For information about the Miss Essex County 2017 contest can email: email@example.com or call 973-204-7499. Application deadline is Dec. 31.