You never know who you might bump into at a bar in Somers Point. The woman next to you just might be Playboy's Miss March 2009.

Of course, it wouldn't be too much of a surprise - she is a native, after all.

"From Gregory's to Caroline's to the Anchorage," Jennifer Pershing, 28, listed her hometown drinking establishments, "pretty much any time I walk into one, I see somebody I know."

The former Jennifer Ackley, a 1998 graduate of Mainland Regional High School, returned to the area this weekend for an appearance at the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort - or, as this week's At The Shore puts it, locals and visitors had the chance to "Party with a Playmate."

The trip to Atlantic City certainly was a convenient one for her - nearly all of her family lives in Somers Point or in nearby towns.

"I lived by Gregory's and Charlie's," Pershing said of her childhood. "I definitely used to walk all over. I'd walk by the bay and hang out there. I went to the New York Avenue School, and I'd hang out at the playground in the summer."

Mainland High, meanwhile, seems a bit different from the perspective of someone who now lives in California.

"It was a lot more normal than schools in L.A.," Pershing said via phone from her new hometown. "Everyone's got crazy, spiky hair here. Mainland was a little more straitlaced. I'm glad I went there."

"I'm glad it's over," she added with a laugh, "but I loved it."

Pershing moved to Los Angeles with her husband, Steven Pershing, a filmmaker and Egg Harbor Township native. The two of them have one of the best "meet-cute" stories ever, she said.

"We met while working at the Showboat entertainment department," she said, recalling her old job at the Atlantic City casino. "When we met, he was known as a 'Big Head' character. He was a big cat, and I would wear what I guess you would call a 'sexy clown' outfit. I would help him walk down the hallway so he didn't bump into things and the kids didn't beat him up."

"It was," she said, "an interesting job to meet someone."

So how was she discovered by the Playboy people?

"I was in the right place at the right time," Pershing said. "I was actually at a club in Hollywood called the Key Club. I was seeing a band called Steel Panther - I must have seen them every Monday for a year and a half, they're this '80s cover band wearing spandex and makeup - and I used to get up and dance. Someone working at the (Playboy) Mansion saw me."

Just like that, she was on her way to becoming a centerfold.

"It was really crazy," Pershing said. "It took me two weeks to let it sink in that it was actually happening."

Playboy centerfold shoots take place six months to a year in advance of the issue hitting the stands, she said - making it all the more jarring when months of waiting would suddenly transform into a "whirlwind of traveling and touring."

So tiring was the rollout of her Miss March pictorial that she never had the chance to see a recent movie about a Playboy Playmate - a movie that happened to be called "Miss March."

"Everybody asks me that," she said, "but I never got to see it. I was always traveling, and when I wasn't I was home sleeping."

What was the part of being a Playmate that would surprise most people?

"Just how respectful people are when they meet you," Pershing said. "One thing that worried me was that people would say rude things, but everyone I've met has been amazing and has said nice things. I'd expected worse, but Playboy is a classy magazine."

One of the things she wants to do now that her life "has calmed down a bit," she said, is to raise awareness of autism. She wants to help out the cause by making appearances as a Playmate and doing charity work, adding she would love to connect with former Playmate and autism advocate Jenny McCarthy.

In the wake of being Miss March, "I'm just rolling with it," she said. She has signed a two-year contract with Playboy and will continue to make appearances like the one at the Taj Saturday night. She was scheduled to do an issue-signing at the Ego Bar and Lounge and host the evening's entertainment at the Casbah nightclub.

As for her future plans, "I'm still working full-time out here (in Los Angeles)," she said. "I'm making the transition into modeling. It's a scary venture, breaking into a full-time job in the entertainment industry, but now is the window of opportunity."

In the end, however, she has not lost sight of her roots in Somers Point - and technology certainly helps in that regard.

"I'm in contact with a lot of people on Facebook," Pershing said, referring to people she knew growing up. "It's funny how a small town stays so close-knit."

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