Carol Dugan, of Ventnor, was intrigued enough with the idea of Ms. New Jersey Senior America for her to look into it.

She did more than examine the concept closely. Dugan decided to compete, won on the state level in June and will be in the running for the Ms. Senior America crown when the pageant comes to Atlantic City next week.

In the process, Dugan did more than just earn a title. She learned about herself.

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“You are asked a lot about how you feel since you turned 50. You are asked about your work experience, about your volunteering, a lot of experiences you have had in the past. Sometimes, you don’t think about everything you have done,” said Dugan about competing for Ms. New Jersey Senior America. “The growth that happens through this was amazing. It really was. I just pushed myself to be the best I could be.”

Dugan, 62, will compete for the Ms. Senior America 2012 title during preliminaries Tuesday and Wednesday, with the pageant finals Thursday, at Harrah’s Resort.

As they compete, Dugan and the other 34 women from across the country and the Virgin Islands will also be demonstrating that women 60 and older are attractive and vital, with skills and intelligence that can be shared with others. For the women, the pageant offers a chance for long-deserved recognition, to rediscover long-dormant talents and to develop new friendships with women.

“So many times, people think when you are 60 and older that you are over the hill, or you are not vibrant anymore. I’m more vibrant than ever,” Dugan said. “It’s an inspiration for other seniors, and it’s also an inspiration for the younger generation to see. I want to be a good influence.”

Dugan will be a formidable competitor for the crown with her talents as a singer and healthy appearance from being a fitness instructor and personal trainer with a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. Dugan’s talents come as no surprise to Johanne Santori, the Ms. New Jersey Senior America Pageant director, who persuaded the reigning queen to enter the competition.

Santori, 73, of Margate, was Ms. New Jersey Senior America in 2006. In the past three years, all of the Ms. New Jersey Senior America winners have been from Atlantic County — Rebecca Orsatti in 2010 and Desiree Nigrelli last year, both of Atlantic City, and Dugan this year.

For people who like to watch pageants live, Ms. Senior America satisfies part of the ache created when the Miss America Pageant left Atlantic City in 2006, even though there are big differences between the two pageants.

Women have to be between the ages of 18 and 25 and single to compete in Miss America.

To compete in Ms. Senior America, women have to be ages 60 and older and may be married, unmarried or widowed.

Nigrelli, who declined to give her age, participated last year with her daughter’s persuasion. Nigrelli was most proud of performing live on stage in front of her granddaughter for the first time during the competition.

“I have a (then 8-year-old) granddaughter, who I taught to play piano and ride horses. I wanted to surprise her because she was at an age where she never heard me sing on stage, Nigrelli said.

Nigrelli said she has done a lot of singing and had performed on the Steel Pier. As a little girl, she was featured on “Tony Grant’s Stars of Tomorrow” and appeared in the pier’s main theater.

“They picked me at the age of 13 to appear with Red Buttons and Tony Bennett,” Nigrelli said.

Last year, Nigrelli sang “Crazy,” made famous by country legend Patsy Cline.

“One of the judges, she came up to me and said, ‘You know, Desiree, I liked you from the beginning, and I loved everything, but when I heard you singing, I thought you were just lip syncing because it sounded so much like her (Cline),” Nigrelli said.

Orsatti lost her husband, former Atlantic City 6th Ward Councilman Arnold Orsatti Jr., in 2008 — one year before she entered the Ms. New Jersey Senior America Pageant for the first time. She ended up as the first runner up. She tried again in 2010 and was named Ms. New Jersey Senior America. Her involvement in the pageant led to her singing live on a stage for the first time in 20 years.

“I just felt good by singing, and I love performing and having the love of the audience, and that’s what I wanted. I didn’t care if I won. I just wanted to get out there and be with people,” Orsatti said.

Kathleen Wells, 68, of Vineland, had raised two sons and a cousin and lost her husband before she took interest in the Ms. New Jersey Senior America Pageant. She loves singing and sang in her church choir her entire life, but neither family nor friends knew how well she could sing. When Wells performed over the summer in the Ms. New Jersey Senior America Pageant, she had a group of 20 family, choir friends and other friends in the audience watching her sing “You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want to Do It)” on stage in public for the first time ever.

“I met a bunch of wonderful women and friends. We all have the love of music and performing, which makes us very happy,” said Wells, who is glad she involved herself with the competition and said she is thinking of entering again next year.

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