Miss New Jersey Cara McCollum has a way with timing. The 21-year-old Princeton University student had zero pageant experience when, on a whim, she decided to enter her local Miss Island Resort Pageant to help raise the profile of a reading charity she founded.
When she won, McCollum found herself once again competing against local pageant veterans for the title of Miss New Jersey — and walked away with that crown in June.
Now, McCollum finds herself preparing to appear on national television, just as the Miss America Pageant moves back to Atlantic City after a nine-year absence and back to its home network on ABC.
The pageant will be broadcast live from Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall 9 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 15.
“You have girls who competed for years and grew up wanting to be Miss America,” McCollum says. “I watched it, but I never thought, ‘That’s going to be someday.’”
McCollum’s local director, however, knew almost immediately that someone special was competing in her pageant.
“She didn’t know too much (about competing), so once she won, we primmed and propered her to become a Miss New Jersey,” says Kristi Brown, the pageant director for Miss Island Resort and a Cape May Court House native. “We had no question that she wouldn’t win. We knew she would.”
Brown, who won the Miss Cape May County 2007 title, worked with McCollum to better show off her personality, she says.
“She came to us with the looks, the smarts, but we really got to crack her shell, so she was more willing to be open,” Brown says. “She really needs to remain herself. Cara is a wonderful girl and she’s with the best of the best … she can relate to every walk of life.”
Now in Atlantic City for two weeks leading up to the pageant, McCollum finds herself in a whirlwind of preparations that include hours of dance rehearsals, interviews, promotional appearances and filming with the production company for the Miss America broadcast. A typical day will include at least six hours of dance rehearsal alone.
“This is day three and it feels like it’s about day 30,” McCollum says. “We’re busy, we have rehearsals during the day, the production is going to be phenomenal, and at night we’re going around and seeing different places in Atlantic City.”
Still, McCollum couldn’t be happier to have such a busy schedule.
“New Jersey fans are the best, so I am feeding off of that and I think it’s a good year for New Jersey to have (the pageant) back,” McCollum says. “We need it for our economy as well as our morale. It has done great things for the spirit of New Jersey. We’ve had some tough times, and I feel like the Miss America Pageant is to Atlantic City what Mardi Gras is to New Orleans. It’s supposed to be here.”
The three preliminary Miss America competitions began on Tuesday, Sept. 10, and continue 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 12 inside Boardwalk Hall. Preliminary competitions, which includes evening wear, swimsuit, talent, interview and an on-stage questions, offer fans of the pageant the chance to see who may have the best chance of earning a coveted “Top 10” spot when the pageant airs live on Sunday. One contestant from that final group will ultimately be crowned Miss America 2014.
This year’s national judges include actor, singer and former ’N Sync member Lance Bass; Grammy Award-winning violinist Joshua Bell; actor and stand-up comedian Mario Cantone; Barbara Corcoran, one of the “Sharks” on ABC’s hit TV show, “Shark Tank”; Miss America 2005 Deidre Downs Gunn; Carla Hall, co-host of ABC’s popular lifestyle series “The Chew”; and NBA star Amar’e Stoudemire.
Another tradition will return 5 p.m. Saturday during the “Show Us Your Shoes Parade,” which will take place on the Boardwalk from Rhode Island to Albany avenues, that will include performances at Kennedy Plaza in front of Boardwalk Hall.
Brown’s mother, Lisa Pawlus, is a former pageant consultant and the field director for the South Jersey East Region of the Miss New Jersey Pageant, a region which accounts for more than half the pageant’s contestants. She jokes that she “doesn’t want to give anything away” by talking about what exactly makes McCollum a strong contender this year — but she is already referring to Miss New Jersey as the winner.
“I think it’s a balance of a lot of different things,” Pawlus says. “You need to be able to go up and speak to (the contestant). She can’t be too stand-offish. If she can’t get her message out, no one wants to hear it and there goes the platform out the door. You also need to be able to laugh at yourself. Being passionate about what you’re doing is important.”
“Everybody has their A-game on,” Pawlus says. “You need to bring it.”