OCEAN CITY – Sally Johnston, whose involvement with the Miss New Jersey program stretches back some 47 years, knows the annual pageant is a competition.
"You're all here wanting the same thing. You're all here wanting that crown on your head," Johnston told the contestants of this year's Miss New Jersey pageant as they gathered Saturday inside Ocean City Intermediate School.
But to Johnston, the pageant also is a place where lifelong friendships are built.
"It's important that you're kind and gentle with each other," she said. "Look at each other with eyes of love and understanding, in that way you will be stronger."
Johnston's words echoed the underlying theme of the day as the contestants, 23 in all, gathered for their pageant orientation. It was the first time all of them would be in one room.
They introduced themselves one at a time, speaking of the excitement of coming this far.
"This is such an amazing sorority - Miss New Jersey is a sorority," said Miss Tri-County Nichole Washington, 23, of Scotch Plains.
Orientation day was a chance for all of them to meet and talk and plan for the pageant that is six weeks away.
The chairpersons of the various pageant committees instructed the women on everything from how to prepare for the pageant's parade - this year's theme is Villains on the Venue - to what to bring with them during pageant week. Contestants turned in copies of the music they will use in the talent portion, which will feature a mix of singers, dancers and two pianists.
This year's pageant was made even more exciting by the return of Miss America to Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall in September.
"In Las Vegas, they hardly knew we were there," said current Miss New Jersey Lindsey Petrosh.
Petrosh competed this year at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas, but before traveling west she had the opportunity to practice on the stage at Boardwalk Hall. "In Atlantic City, there's a buzz about it," she said.
Miss Columbus Day Courtney Charatsaris said the pageant's return heightened the excitement for the contestants at the state level.
"It's great for New Jersey's economy and tourism, and it makes the pageant much more relevant," she said.
Johnston, who travels with Miss New Jersey, said the pageant's return to the Garden State was welcome news.
"I am absolutely thrilled," she said. "Las Vegas was nice and they were nice to us, but it just didn't have the same excitement and the hometown feeling."
Lou Barthold, the co-executive director, agreed.
"We love it. We love it. It should never have left," he said.
Denise Magaziner, a longtime pageant fan from Cherry Hill and supplier of this year's swimsuits and dresses, called the pageant's return big news.
"It's an American institution that needs to be revitalized," Magaziner said. "This was part of our culture. It shows women you can be attractive. You can embrace your feminity. You can be intelligent."
Petrosh said she's earned $20,000 in college scholarship money since entering pageants in 2006. Patrosh earned a bachelor's degree in communications from Rowan Univeristy and is currently working to obtain a master's degree in higher education and administration, also at Rowan.
"There is that stigma (about pageants), but it's also about education and service," Petrosh said.
Petrosh spoke to the contestants about her experience and also modeled the swimsuit options for them.
Barthold spoke of the importance of their platforms, the issues they have chosen to champion during their pageant careers, which range from anti-bullying, to support of the Girl Scouts, to efforts to prevent texting and driving.
Now, the contestants have six weeks to rehearse their talents, practice their remarks and ready their parade costumes.
Miss Atlantic Shore Carissa Palumbo, a returning contestant, advised them to enmbrace all that lies ahead.
"My only advice is to have fun," she said.
Contact Trudi Gilfillian:
The Miss New Jersey Pageant takes place the week of June 10 to 15 at the Music Pier in Ocean City. To learn more, visit www.missnewjersey.net