“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”
I came across this quote after competing for Miss New Jersey for a 4th time, and walking away with nothing—or so I thought was nothing at the time. My best friend won, so the sadness and disappointment of my own shortcomings dissipated because she needed me and this was something we dreamed of/planned for years. YEARS. I turned into a proofreader, a transcriber (she spoke while driving and I just typed away), a permanent presence in the passenger’s seat, a security guard (I had to stiff-arm a couple people), a cheerleader, but a friend and a partner-in-crime nonetheless. I was vicariously living my dream through my best friend, but she also allowed me to live it with her, too. Fast-forward to September 2014 when I’m sitting in Boardwalk Hall with tears in my eyes as I am watching my favorite person in the entire world dance as my voice filled the space–yes, that really happened. Miss America preparation was a small part of Cierra’s year as Miss NJ in retrospect, but it played such a huge part in my life. As only the second woman of color to be crowned, Cierra’s win inspired me for a number of reasons. She was doing everything she planned on doing if she had ever won, and doing it pretty damn well.
The fire was lit. I ran into my favorite titleholders, met amazing women and I felt inspired and motivated. All I kept thinking was “I can do this.”
And I did. Kind of.
“One of these two ladies will be the next Miss New Jersey…” There I am, standing in front of one of my closest pageant friends… and we’re holding hands. The last two standing.
We’re both staring at each other wondering what the hell is going on (that may or may not have come out of one of our mouths, but I will neither confirm nor deny that). Every year, I have premonitions on who will win and I am always right. Always. Katharyn Nicolle, Lindsey Petrosh, Cara McCollum, Cierra—I guessed them all. This year, my vision was simply a girl waving at the end of the runway in a black dress. Well, there I am— in my black Kaitlin Monte inspired Shawn Yearick evening gown, and there is Lindsey, also in her black Shawn Yearick gown. I have dreamed of this moment since I watched Kirsten Haglund win Miss America and good lord what a feeling it is. My stomach sank to the floor and all I felt was an ease come over me. No pressure, no nerves, no sadness. I think I’ll deem it complacency—like someone from above lightly graced my shoulder and said “it’s going to be okay.” All I thought was “well, I did it– I got far as I am destined to be.” I looked back at my BFF Devon, I smiled, and I said (in my head) “it’s not going to me.” Things got a little crazy but when the smoke cleared, I looked up, and watched Lindsey waving at the end of the runway in her black evening gown.
Oddly enough, I wasn’t sad after the fact. I got so many hugs and ‘I love yous’ in that moment that nothing else really mattered to me other than my mom being proud of me. I went upstairs, changed out of my gown and into my cocktail dress, grabbed two slices of pizza, ate them (both), put on a brave face and said, out loud, everything that not only I, but every other girl who also didn’t win, needed to hear.
“I have made Top ten, I haven’t. I have won prelims, I haven’t, I have made Top 5 and I haven’t. Tonight, I went from not even hearing my name last year to being 1st runner up. I want you all to know that if you believe in this dream, you fight for it until you can’t fight anymore. Your hard work and dedication, it matters. But above all else, I have never in my life felt so loved and supported by a group of girls and for that I want to say thank you.”
The morning after. Aside from Devon and I having a sob fest at 8am in my room, I sat at breakfast the next day, still totally okay. I looked at my mom, asked her if I sounded okay during my OSQ, and she responded “Oh my gosh, of course! Probably the best I’ve ever heard you speak.” My response, in the wimpiest voice, “Then why didn’t they pick me?” Tears came rolling down all over my Uncle Bill’s pancakes, as my brave face and tough heart could no longer hold its own. However, something really amazing happened in that moment—a woman walked by my table, apologized for catching me at a bad time, and said how proud she was of me and that I have served as an inspiration to both of her daughters.
That is my purpose. Since I was a young girl, I have always wanted to set a positive example, even if that meant being a nerd or not hanging out with my friends as much, because I enjoyed doing well in school, volunteering, singing, etc. I grew up in an environment that had already set me up to fail, as Hispanics were falling to the daunting statistics surrounding teen pregnancy and high school dropout rates. I saw more of what I didn’t want to be then what I actually wanted to be. From that point forward, I made it a point to BE the person others could emulate and look up to. All it takes is one person, is what I always told myself.
Eight years ago… The extent of my beauty regimen was making sure I wore mascara to school, decked out in my khakis, pullover sweater and messy bun. I was the girl with a snack basket at the bottom of her locker, filled with candy and honey buns, who ran to homeroom in slippers every morning just as the bell was ringing (I was a real gem). I entered my senior year of high school with a huge void in my heart, as I wandered the halls that I once heard ‘WHERE’S BIG A AT?!’ in. You lose a friend at a young age and your entire perspective on life changes. My friend, Josh, was killed by a drunk driver. You can try to paint that however you want in an attempt to find purpose and meaning, but I remember when it all happened. The first thing I did was put a ribbon on the fence where he parked his bike. He used to somehow lodge it in between this metal fence and my car, as if my car served as some sort of shield. After that, I walked into my high school, I sat down in front of his locker on the floor in the middle of the hallway and I cried. The girl that never cries was suddenly balling her eyes out in an empty high school hallway. I had to sit there and wrap my head around the fact that I was supposed to be with him, but I missed his call.
The light in my path. I entered my first local MAO pageant in February 2009. You take this opinionated tomboy who spent more time on a baseball field and a basketball court than on her hair and makeup, put her on a stage in a swimsuit and suddenly things change. I met Ashleigh Udalovas (who would later become Miss New Jersey) during this pageant. She took me under her wing and guided me through the chaos and into the meaning of what exactly Miss America is/was. I wanted to be her. I wanted to use my talent and my voice to be a force in my community, with the hopes that bringing attention to social issues as an ambitious Hispanic woman would not only break the mold of what is perceived to be a “Pageant Girl,” but bring relatability and relevance to girls (and boys) who maybe haven’t found someone older to identify with.
Here and now. I had the opportunity to speak at Millville Senior High School before their prom a few weeks before Miss New Jersey, and in doing so, got to share a little bit about myself, as well as Josh’s story. I was a little nervous, because to this day, I still get emotional talking about it. I stood up in front of the first class and literally poured my heart out on the floor. I sincerely believe that transparency and honesty is the best tool in public speaking, especially when you are trying to get your point across. I started to get a little teary eyed and felt embarrassed, only to look down at 20-something staring faces with tears in their eyes. My message was resonating with 17-year-olds. They were actually relating, understanding, but most importantly, they were listening. In that moment, I couldn’t have felt any more accomplished. The mood was lightened with a Q&A period, and then the students had a break before their next block. I took the time to check my phone for any messages/texts and looked up to find chairs pulled up all around the desk I was sitting at with questions coming at me left and right. Students were sitting around me asking about my college courses, internships, Carmelo Anthony, basketball, pageants, singing and football. I could not have felt more blessed in that moment, because I live to share my experiences with the hopes that it inspires people—I mean that. I even received tweets and messages from these students before & during Miss New Jersey week.
THE GOOD STUFF.
Miss New Jersey Week started off with a fun trip to the hospital. I wish I was kidding. Monday afternoon as I was picking up last minute things and running a few errands, my neck was itching. I shook it off thinking, ‘ehh it’s a bug bite.’ Boy, was I wrong. I finally looked in a mirror to find hives all over my neck, and some on my face. CUE THE PANIC. Something always happens before Miss NJ week. It’s just a thing. One year, half of my eyebrow was accidently waxed off. One year, I was sick and could barely talk (super awesome for a singer). One year, I fell and almost twisted my ankle. Stuff happens, right? I laughed, called my mom, got a salad and went to the mall to finish my shopping. Thinking that my stress is getting the best of me, I try to relax for the sake of my face (IT IS STILL A PAGEANT, PEOPLE). I have entirely too many tan lines, so I go to the gym for a quick tan (sorry Fiona, don’t hate me). I arrive back at home to find my ENTIRE face in hives, and my throat is starting to swell up. So, off to the ER we go! Three hours and three medications later, I am home with 4 hours to label and pack all of my things, sleep and gear up for my last trip to The Forum. Sidenote: God Bless my sweet, sweet angel of a mother who didn’t sleep for a single minute because she was up worried, sewing and steaming my clothes.
Sequence of events: Breakfast with my shore family. Move-in. Rehearsal. Dinner. Rehearsal. Breakfast. Rehearsal. Lunch. Rehearsal. Dinner. Parade. Rehearsal. Sleep.
Interview time. I threw the whole ‘this is my last year’ pressure out the window a long time ago because what the hell is that going to do for me now, you know? I walked into that room and made a promise that I would be myself unapologetically. I had an allergic reaction the night prior so I was a little drowsy from my meds, but I somehow fought through it to form coherent sentences (yay me!). I walked out, looked at Cierra and wasn’t really sure what to think, but it was over and there was nothing I could do about it. Looking back at it now, with less stress, I can honestly say I did okay. I left it all in that room, which is exactly what I wanted to do.
Questions I was asked: What is the difference between a Philly fan and a New York fan?; Do you think the drinking age should be lowered?; If I could give you any advice as a former Miss NJ, what do you think it would be and why?; do you think there is such a thing as a perfect body?; what makes you different from the other girls—why should we pick you?; How do you prove you’re not just another pretty face?; If you could speak to the GM of the Yankees or the Phillies, what would your 30-second pitch be for the HERO Campaign?; What do you say to students when speaking about drunk driving?
Rehearsal. Dinner. SHOWTIME.
My talent song wasn’t supposed to happen. Because of talent reservation mishaps, I had to change my song last minute, but the first time I heard ‘What Kind of Fool Am I,’ I knew that everything happened for a reason. I, like many 20-something year old girls, have never really been in love. You strive to be this successful, accomplished woman with a good head on her shoulders and a pretty face- but sometimes ya just wanna be loved! Hasn’t happened for me quite yet, but the song held special meaning, so I walked out in my Christmas-Barbie inspired two-piece red gown and sang my heart out. I, then, won a talent preliminary award and lost my marbles. I was so happy. Singing has always been a part of my life, and to be recognized for that was important to me. I shared the night with [the future] Miss New Jersey, who won swimsuit that night and proceeded to talk about pizza on-stage.
Friday night was the real nerve-kicker—Swimsuit and Evening Gown. For years, I have been bullied by those stupid Voy boards (and to my face, actually) about my body and my weight. I said this in my interview, too. I have battled outside demons, online demons who have said I needed to push myself away from the dinner table, and the doubt and fear inside my head telling me I couldn’t do it—an ex-boyfriend once told me I would never be Miss New Jersey because I was fat and not white (he’s an ex for a reason). Challenges and adversity presented itself in the summer of 2013 as I was graduating college, trying to find a job and also battling minor depression that was caused by a number of things in my life. I finally took charge and control a few months ago and FINALLY feel like myself again. I used the Miss New Jersey stage to show that Anna, the REAL Anna, was back. I stepped out on that stage in my Irene West swimsuit with zero cares, because I knew I had worked extremely hard to achieve a feasible, realistic and maintainable body image. Thousands of kettle bell swings, endless squats, too many resistance sprints and deadlifts later, I confidently strutted my 145-pound self proudly. I stopped worrying about the number on the scale and started worrying about what mattered-my health (and my fit bod! Haha).
Why won’t you just love me? I think competing for Miss New Jersey (or any local/state title) is kind of like trying to get the guy you love to love you back. You do everything in your power to be the most beautiful human being with an intellect like no other, a hot body, a heart of gold, great with kids and the ability to hold a conversation long enough to contribute something worth listening to—and for some reason he still doesn’t love you back. He’s just there—and if you’re what he likes, he’ll choose you. If you aren’t his cup of tea, he moves on to the next lucky lady. That, my friends, is life. It is all a matter of preference. The only difference? You don’t chase boys, you chase dreams. If you’re bringing everything I mentioned to the table, you wait for the one who will run with you.
The rest is history. Would I have loved to be the first Hispanic Miss New Jersey? Absolutely. Would I have loved to utilize the Miss New Jersey name to reach students and essentially everyone across the state in spreading optimism, positivity and my platform message? Certainly. My friend Jaren reminded me of something so very important at lunch a few days ago that put everything into perspective. Amidst my story telling, he said to me, “But you’re always going to be Anna– the driven, passionate Anna that makes things happen. You don’t need a crown or a title for that.” Cierra said the same thing to me Saturday night and everything came full circle.
Greatness isn’t always defined by winning the race. I have certainly been on a rollercoaster of emotions, but I finally came to a realization—I am already Miss New Jersey in the eyes of those who look up to me. Over the last five years, I have spoken to/with thousands of students across the state, spent countless hours at the Children’s Specialized Hospital of New Jersey—meeting and connecting with the most amazing families and children, worked with nationally recognized organizations, as well as state officials, met truly remarkable women that I get to call my friends, but above all else, I have grown into a woman that I am proud to be. I defied stereotypes and became a first-generation college graduate, obtaining a degree and establishing a career in an industry people thought was “too competitive & male-dominated” for me to succeed in. I have performed the National Anthem live on national television at the World’s Most Famous Arena—twice. I completed five internships in New York City. I fearlessly speak and sing in front of thousands with a confidence I developed over time. I technically sang on the Miss America stage. I have learned that there are people out there who can still hold meaningful conversation about music, art, poetry, sports, politics and pizza. Most importantly, I have learned that women of substance, those who radiate knowledge, servitude, selflessness, kindness, optimism, positivity and quirkiness, are not only valued, but an asset to our society and world. This journey, the years of service– they are not about anybody but you and the people you are impacting. #byehaters
Lessons Learned. I disregarded the assumptions and negative thoughts/opinions of so many people and took it upon myself to be exactly who I am and nothing less. I believe it’s important to rise above any setbacks and face challenges head-on, because it gives you the chance to grow and flourish as a human being. I have said this from Day 1—I want to lead a life that leaves people feeling motivated, inspired, empowered and important. It is my hope that I have left every single person I have encountered better—as each person I met has, in turn, affected me in the best way possible. I learned that every person, every situation and every experience has something to offer, so long as you keep an open mind, open ears and an open heart.
THANKS. To everyone who believed in me— my sincerest thank you. It most definitely takes a village to deal with a girl who is meek hearted, laughs too loud, speaks outright and says “YAS,” “I love you” and “are you kidding” too much. In all of that, you have reassured me that being Anna is always enough. Every single message, hug, smile and conversation helped me find the light in my darkest days. I have what feels like a MILLION thank yous and I want to save them all for my farewell (July 18th– be there), but I want to take a moment to thank a gal pal who became one of my closest friends, as she won’t be at the pageant in a few weeks.
Dev– There was never a moment when you weren’t texting me, Facetiming me, holding my hand, or pinching my butt throughout this journey. Whenever a single notion of doubt even crossed my mind, you were there to swat it away. I very sincerely don’t think I would have been standing on that stage next to Lindsey if it weren’t for your friendship. I mean that. You pushed me in the gym, out of harms way and into a space of sight and faith. I think I tell you I love you a thousand times a day, but here’s a thousand and one. I love you.
Thanks for crying with me, hugging me and saying how proud you are of me. You don’t know the impact that you have had on my life, and the lives of so many other people, simply by being the Pistol that you are. So glad I have someone to be weird with #wheresthesaranwrap #groupieheadnod
Y’all, my heart is so full of love and appreciation. I am never ‘losing’ because this organization has provided me with scholarships to pursue higher education, amazing sisters and friends, memories that will last me a lifetime, the confidence to use my voice to be a staple in my community, and the skills and tools to succeed in life long after the crowns have tarnished. Above all else, I have gained an identity, a clearer grasp on my purpose and the greatest best friend a girl could ever ask for.
Everything happens for a reason. What‘s meant for you will never pass you by.
See you in Hoopeston 😉