June 15, 2001
The 20th Century Miss New Jersey Pageant

Staff Writer

The annual Miss New Jersey Pageant, the sixth straight to be held on the Music Pier, is this weekend. There is more about the 2001 competition at the bottom of this page. But we would be remiss if we didn't look back on that fabulous pageant a few weeks ago - The 20th Century Miss New Jersey Pageant.

There, on one stage competing exactly as they had in their pageant prime, were the last 33 women to hold the state title, all seeking that golden crown as the super-pageant winner.

Since more than 2,000 people were expected each night, and the Wildwood Convention Hall is not yet completed, the fictional 20th Century pageant was held at the War Memorial Auditorium outside Trenton. It is one of New Jersey's finest theatres and is located virtually in the center of the state.

For competition purposes, these women were divided into three groups - those from 1990-2000 comprise the Modern Group, 1979-89 are the Central Group and 1968-78 the Classic Group.

Comprising the Modern Group are Jill Horner of Gloucester Township, Victoria Paige of Sparta, Stephanie Ferrari of Glen Rock, Kathy Nejat of Voorhees, Melanie Bell of Vernon, Dena Querubin of Waterford, Jennifer Makris of Cherry Hill, Michele Sexton of Spring Lake Heights, Heather Hertling of Randolph, Amy Fissel of Ocean City and Lynette Falls of Ridgewood.

The Central Group includes Laura Murray of Livingston, Tricia Bowman of Ocean City, Robin Lange of Medford, Karyn Zosche of Pine Brook, Toni Georgiana of Cherry Hill, Patricia LeTerra of West New York, Suzette Charles of Mays Landing, Christina Shone of Pequannock, Debra Naley of Rockaway, Therese Hanley of Jersey City and Mary McGinnis of Somers Point.

In the Classic Group are Laurie Berchtold of Ocean City, Mary D'Arcy of Yardville, Lori Johnson of Medford, Nancy Craig of Trenton, Elizabeth Bracken of Mahwah, Suzanne Plummer of Wildwood, Linda Gialanella of Maplewood, Lynn Hackerman of Mount Laurel, Hela Yungst of Hillside, Cheryl Carter of Matawan and Linda Wilmer of Cherry Hill.

The week started with a visit to Great Adventure on Sunday followed by personal interviews with the judges on Monday and Tuesday. There was a twilight parade through downtown Princeton Tuesday night, with floats designed by the legendary Kay Wright of Pleasantville. The Grand Marshall was John Travolta, who grew up in Englewood, NJ.

Wednesday night's preliminary show began with a big production number, featuring both the Marcia Hyland Dancers and the Jersey Cape Dancers. It was hard to believe they could get so many dancers on that stage at once. The cast included Brian Conover, Alyson Michaels, Art Abbott, Suzan Stover and Troy Dawkins. For some reason, every time Abbott sang, the contestant from Trenton - Nancy Craig - got light-headed.

Soon, however, it was time for the co-emcees, Christine Ebright Hedden and New Jersey native Jon Bon Jovi, to start the competition. On Wednesday night, the Central Group was in swimsuit competition and it was a tie between Toni Georgiana and Suzette Charles. The Wednesday night talent winner from the Classic Group was Mary D'Arcy, who showed promise of a Broadway career with her rendition of "Summertime".

Thursday night, the groups switched into different areas of competition. The swimsuit winner from the Modern Group was Jill Horner. And the winner in talent, from the Central Group, was Suzette Charles with her emotional presentation of "Kiss Me In The Rain".

Friday was the final preliminary night. The winner in swimsuit was Suzanne Plummer from the Classic Group. And the talent award went to Heather Hertling from the Modern Group, whose vocal rendition of "Ernani Involami" brought shouts of "bravo" from the audience.

The excitement was building on Saturday night with live television cameras zooming in and still cameras flashing off almost like strobe lights. At one side of the pit in front of the stage were the professional photographers - Don Kravitz, Paul Currier and Al Molen - waiting for the action to begin.

Seated in the front row, greeting guests and looking just as excited, were Nate Zauber, Christine Wright and Mike Allegretto, the trio that, between them, directed the 33 pageants that produced these Miss New Jerseys.

About 25 minutes into the Saturday show, it was time to introduce the Top 10. "Here they are," said Bon Jovi, "in no particular order."

The Top 10 were Suzette Charles, Michele Sexton, Therese Hanley, Cheryl Carter, Heather Hertling, Jill Horner, Jennifer Makris, Victoria Paige, Suzanne Plummer and Mary D'Arcy.

The cheering made the War Memorial sound like the First Union Center at a 76ers game. But the capacity crowd finally settled down and the judges were introduced - New Jersey native and singer Frankie Avalon, former Miss America and actress Lee Meriwether, oil executive and former South Carolina judge chairman Roger Hendler, Mississippi state producer Patricia Hopson and former NBA great Julius Erving.

The 10 finalists competed in evening wear first, answering a couple of questions from the two emcees. Then came talent and, unlike the Miss America Pageant, all 10 got a chance to show their talent. It is, after all, the one competition that makes the Miss America program unique and it seems quite illogical that they de-emphasize it on the final night at the national pageant.

Charles started off with "Kiss Me In The Rain", again drawing successfully on the emotion of the song and her depth of talent. Sexton was next, singing "Vissi D'arte" to a rousing ovation. And Hanley followed with a dynamic version of "Starting Here, Starting Now".

After a break, Carter, the only teenager among the Top 10, was impressive at the piano. Hertling again brought the audience to the edge of its collective seats with her vocal work on "Ernani Involami". Next, Horner charmed everyone with the prophetic "You're Gonna Hear From Me". And Makris pumped a lot of blues into "The Man That Got Away".

After another break, the talent concluded. Paige was impressive singing "Non So Piu Cosa Son" (which Bon Jovi somehow pronounced perfectly). Then, Plummer made the piano sing with her presentation of "Stardust". And D'Arcy finished up with "Summertime", which brought the audience to its feet. They remained standing when the hosts asked for a salute to all ten finalists in talent.

After the swimsuit competition, it was all over. The only thing remaining was tabulating the scores and announcing the winners.

But there were other winners to be announced.

Non-finalist talent awards went to Tricia Bowman, Mary McGinnis and Laura Murray. Non-finalist interview awards went to Nancy Craig, Amy Fissel and Linda Gialanella. And the Miss Congeniality Award, chosen by the contestants themselves, went to Ocean City's Laurie Berchtold. It probably didn't hurt that she brought lots of her famous homemade cheesecakes with her.

Finally, the drum rolls and Bon Jovi steps to the mike. "The fourth runner-up, and winner of a $25,000 scholarship (this is, after all, a fantasy!), is Jill Horner from Gloucester Township.

"The third runner-up, who wins $30,000, is Therese Hanley from Jersey City. Second runner-up, and a $35,000 scholarship winner, is Suzanne Plummer of Wildwood.

"The first runner-up, winner of $45,000, is Mary D'Arcy of Yardville."

You could cut the tension in the War Memorial building with a knife!

"There are six women left. Five of them will win $15,000 scholarships as finalists. The other receives The $60,000 Bette Zauber Memorial Scholarship and will reign as Miss 20th Century New Jersey until 2100.

"The winner is - Suzette Charles of Mays Landing."

As Suzette walked the runway, Art Abbott sang "Look At Her", Nancy Craig passed out and the audience gave Charles another standing ovation.

It was quite a week - a celebration of the versatile, unique and talented women who have represented New Jersey in the Miss America Program throughout the 20th century.

The REAL Pageant Concludes Saturday

Another Miss New Jersey will be crowned Saturday night on the Music Pier from among 26 young women. The new titleholder will receive her crown from Jill Horner of Gloucester Township, who was among the 10 semi-finalists at last October's Miss America Pageant.

Katie Ulmer, 21, of Ocean City, who is Miss Cape May County, is the local favorite. A student at Salisbury (MD) University, she is a tap dancer in the talent competition. Ulmer's platform issue is Child Abuse Prevention.

Other area contestants include Marilu Bakaric, 18, of Pleasantville, Miss Atlantic County. A jazz-ballet dancer, her platform issue is "Dance Therapy For All Ages". Erin Pearce, 17, is Miss Vineland and the youngest of the 26 competing. A recent graduate of Our Lady of Mercy Academy, she also is a dancer. Her platform is "Strengthening the Emphasis on Art in the Schools". And Julie Barber, 24, of Millville is Miss Union County. A graduate of Montclair State University, she is a ballet dancer. Her platform is "Spotlight on Children's Mental Health".

Barber was in the top ten here last year while Ulmer, Bakaric and Pearce are competing at this level for the first time. In fact, of the 26 contestants, exactly half are competing in a state pageant for the first time.

Based on previous results in New Jersey, five young women may be the leading contenders to win the title. Susan Crane, 22, was second runner-up in NJ in 1998 and was third runner-up in Virginia last year while attending William & Mary. Tami Peters, 20, was fourth runner-up here in 1999. Arielle Riposta, 22, was fourth runner-up to Horner last year. Kelley Faulkner, 22, was second runner-up in 1996. And Kameelah Majied, 24, was third runner-up last year.

In addition, Marci DeGol, 23, was first runner-up in Pennsylvania in 1999 and in the PA top ten last year. This is her first time in the Miss New Jersey Pageant.

Friday night is the final night of preliminary competition with the 10 women who score the most preliminary points Thursday and Friday competing on Saturday for the title and the $8,000 in scholarship awards that go to the winner. A total of $32,000 in scholarship awards is available on Saturday.

The cast includes Horner and four other former Miss New Jerseys - Toni Georgiana, Tres Hanley, Michelle Sexton and Nancy Craig Abbott. Former Ocean City Mayor Roy Gillian is making his pageant debut at the piano.

The panel of judges includes former Miss America, Kate Shindle, a graduate of Bishop Eustace Prep in Pennsauken, and Heather Hertling Narducci, former Miss New Jersey.

Tickets are $20 for Friday night and $35 for Saturday's finale. The remaining tickets are available at the Music Pier Box Office (609-525-9248). -Tom Williams

Be sure to read The Sandpaper in the Ocean City area and The Beachcomber in the Wildwood area throughout the summer months for similar features.