September 18, 2003

Miss New Jersey is youngest Miss America contestant, 10th from area to compete

Current Staff Writer

Jennifer Farrell might be the youngest contestant in this week's Miss America Pageant but she has one of the strongest pageant histories.

"Since I was five my mother would take me to the parade every year," said the 19-year old Margate resident, "and I would sit there with my newspaper in my lap, checking the names of the girls. I'd scream out their names as they went by and I thought I was the coolest girl on the boardwalk because they all waved right at me. Our family would also go to the preliminaries every year."

Being on the other side of things is different. "I was a spectator for 14 years and now I'm in the competition. It is a strange feeling, but very exciting."

Her experiences as a pageant fan aren't the only reasons why Miss New Jersey, crowned in June on the Ocean City Music Pier, will not be intimidated by the Boardwalk Hall. "We had our senior prom in the building," said the Holy Spirit graduate. "That was the first time I had been in it. I took a tour of the Miss America areas."

Farrell is the first graduate of Holy Spirit to compete in the Miss America Pageant. Previously, New Jersey has been represented by three Ocean City High School graduates (Laurie Berchtold, Amy Fissel and Tricia Bowman) and one Mainland grad (Mary McGinnis). Two from Oakcrest (Debbie Lipford and Elaine Campanelli) competed as Miss Delaware; an Atlantic City grad (Joan Burachio) was Miss Nevada; and Ocean City's Michelle Harris was Miss Delaware. There was also Suzette Charles, Miss America 1984, a Mays Landing resident who attended the Philadelphia School of the Performing Arts.

Not only is Farrell the youngest of the 51, she is also in her first year of pageant competition. And not only is she the first former Spartan to compete for Miss America, she was the first Miss Atlantic County to win the Miss New Jersey crown. "I may not win," she said, "but to have so much support from family and friends in the area is better than winning, in some ways."

Farrell's favorite Miss America is Heather Whitestone. "I'm dancing to the same song she danced to in the talent competition. Even though she had a handicap, she overcame the obstacles. And she was a dancer, even though she was almost completely deaf. She danced by feeling vibrations in the music. That's amazing. Dancing is hard enough without trying to do it when you can't hear the music."

Being a local resident all her life, Farrell has been educating her fellow contestants about the area. "When we first came in from Washington, some of the girls saw the jitneys riding by," she said. "One girl asked what those big blue cars were. I said, 'they're jitneys', surprised that none of them knew what a jitney was."

As a parade veteran, Farrell has special plans for the parade. "My costume will say it all," she said. "It is a South Jersey theme. Locals are definitely going to get it. The other girls say, 'you're doing what for the parade?, when I tell them. But South Jersey will definitely understand it."

One thing Farrell does not understand are some of the independently operated online message boards about the pageant. "The value of those message boards was probably to pass along information about upcoming pageants, how you can enter, who has entered and so forth," she said. "It has turned into bashing of individuals and really hurting people. I don't go to those sites that often but I have seen some attacks on me. I just feel that if you have nothing better to do with your time than to bash other people who won a contest fair and square, you are the one with problems."

On Saturday night, Farrell and the 50 other representatives will be part of the network telecast on ABC that will culminate with the announcement of a new Miss America. Tom Bergeron steps in as the show's host and Clay Aiken, the popular runner-up on last year's American Idol competition, will perform.

The pageant has, of course, added something new - a competition called casual wear. "They told us to wear something we'd wear to class, to a football game or to a concert," Farrell said. "That's three different outfits. And 'casual' will mean different things in different parts of the country. But they have choreographed a cute number for it."

Producers are probably hoping more people will tune in if they can see the contestants in jeans and a sweater. They also are hoping regular interruptions by two people named Trista Rehn and Ryan Sutter from The Bachelorette, one of dozens of mediocre but highly-rated reality shows, will boost the pageant's sagging TV ratings. Rehn and Sutter, who were brought together by the TV show and will be married soon, are hosting a party the pageant calls "a fascinating get-together" and will offer comments at various times throughout the broadcast.

The parade will also be broadcast over a wide area this year for the first time in more than a decade on CN8. But, at press time, there was concern about the effects of Isabel.

"If that hurricane ruins our parade - my only chance to ride in the Miss America Parade," said Farrell, "it will have real problems with me."

Bert Parks