Cara McCollum’14 took home the crown at Saturday's Miss New Jersey pageant. The title earns McCollum a spot in September's Miss America competition. The Miss America Pageant will be returning to Atlantic City, N.J. after a seven-year run in Las Vegas, making McCollum's reign a particularly exciting one. "It's a great year to be Miss New Jersey," McCollum said.
Street got a chance to sit down with Miss New Jersey and talk about school, pageants and whether those beauty queens are as catty backstage as "Miss Congeniality" would have us believe.
Extracurriculars: Kappa Alpha Theta, Fashion Speaks (Community Service Committee and Model), Writer for the Princeton Alumni Weekly, Assistant Copy Editor for the Nassau Literary Review, cheerleader during her freshman year
Eating Club: Cottage
Residential College: Forbes
The Daily Princetonian:When did this journey begin for you? What made you decide to compete?
CM: I entered my first local preliminary pageant back in September—it was actually the week before school started, and it was the first pageant I had ever competed in. I'm originally from Arkansas, and pageants are really huge down there, so it's kind of bizarre that I didn't get involved until I moved up north. But I had a charity that I started my junior year of high school called the Birthday Book Project, and I wanted to bring it with me to New Jersey, and I just didn't have the connections within the community. And so the Miss New Jersey organization, you know—you have a platform that you promote throughout your reign, and so they literally gave me a platform to stand on. I had my support team, and I was able to get into schools and read to kids and start back my charity. It was just a really excellent way to get involved in the community.
DP: Can you tell us more about the pageant platform and why you're so passionate about it?
CM: Every girl that competes has her own platform that she promotes, and it's basically like your chosen charity. Mine is giving the gift of reading—that's what it's called. I'm extremely passionate about literacy;you know, I'm an English major. I want to be a writer when I grow up ... I love books. I came from a very impoverished part of Arkansas, and books were an escape for me so I was able to go—you know, metaphorically—to all of these different places and find out about all of these different things and different people and it really opened my mind, and that's why I think it's important to get books to particularly underprivileged children who are not aware of the big, wide world around them.
DP: Your home state is Arkansas. What was it about New Jersey that made you want to represent this state at the Miss America Pageant?
CM: Well, I spend nine months out of my year here—it's really where I am promoting my platform, it's where I spend my time, it's where I do my charity, and now it's going to be where I'm going to be spending all of my time traveling across the state. It's a very diverse place:There are people from all different ethnic, religious, cultural backgrounds. So you have a lot of people from a lot of different places coming here, and I guess I'm just one of them. When I was doing my college tour, I went to all the different colleges, and Princeton was my dream school because I came here and I fell in love with it. It has offered opportunities to me that I didn't find elsewhere.
DP: Describe the process of preparing for the Miss New Jersey competition.
CM: So, I'm pretty new at this, so I probably didn't go about it the right way. But what I did in preparation—a lot of hours in Dillon Gym. Piano is my talent, so I got access to the piano practice room in Forbes. I didn't have a piano teacher or anything, so I taught myself the song and played it in that tiny, little practice room in the basement of Forbes. I got my gown from a dress store in Princeton, so that was convenient ... and then, you know, I feel like everyone at Princeton has been through the whole interview process, as far as trying to get into schools. It was strange learning the difference between college interviews or job interviews, which I feel Princeton students are really good at and really practiced at, and pageant interviews. Because when you're doing a college interview or a job interview, you're trying to sell yourself—you know, "these are my attributes and this is why you want to hire me for the job," but when you do pageant interviews you have to just be really personable and relatable. You don't want to be too flashy; it's not all about selling yourself—you're also trying to be relatable and the girl-next-door. It was an interesting process trying to go from "I'm the absolute best candidate and this is why you should hire me!" to "I'm just an everyday, average girl-next-door."
DP: How was it meeting your fellow Miss New Jersey contestants? What were the relationships like between these women?
CM: You know, I was really surprised, because I've seen every stereotypical pageant movie everyone else has seen, and I kind of had the same conception going in of the stereotypes of the "pageant girl." I didn't really know the girls as well because a lot of them have been competing together for years—this is their fourth or fifth time at Miss New Jersey, and so they kind of had already formed their friendships. I came in as a total newbie, and it was just an amazing week. The whole past week we've been together from sunrise until long past sunset. Really, they're amazing girls, and I guess somewhere along the line somebody came up with the stereotype that pageant girls are frivolous and shallow and silly, but it's absolutely not true. They're some of the most ambitious girls I've met, and they're doing amazing things across the state with their platforms and in their communities. I made some really strong friendships with some really amazing girls.
DP: How did you feel going into the competition?
CM: Well, I was a little nervous because, like I said, there were girls with a lot more experience than I had. I felt going into it that I was prepared for the job of Miss New Jersey. It's what I worked for all year since I got my local title back in September. So I've been preparing, but you know, you prepare for a year and you get there and it's just an overwhelming experience. You know, you have the preliminary nights of competition, and I did not win any preliminary awards. So it was kind of a bummer, and I wasn't sure, because I was so sure going in that I was going to give it my all and do the best I can ... all's well that ends well—it worked out for me in the end!
DP: Tell us about the events Saturday night. What was the order of the program?
CM: We had preliminary nights of competition Thursday and Friday, and they split us up into two groups, and so I competed in evening gown and swimsuit on Thursday and talent on Friday. They take those scores and combine them, and then they pick the Top 10. So on Saturday, fresh out the gate, they announce the Top 10. If you are in the Top 10, then you compete in evening gown, swimsuit and talent again, and out of those scores they combine those and pick the Top Five. So then the Top Five sit onstage, all of us in a line, and they ask us an on-stage question. At that point the judges rank the girls—you know, one, two, three, four, five—within the Top Five, and they have some number system. They compile the rankings, and that's how you get your Miss New Jersey!
DP: What do you plan to accomplish as Miss New Jersey?
CM: I have Miss America coming up in the next three months, so that's right around the corner. So, really, in the next three months I'm just going to be in Miss America boot camp getting ready for that. Since Miss America is coming back to New Jersey for the first time in seven years, it's going to be a big deal—a lot of publicity as Miss New Jersey. After that calms down, I'm going to be trying to get in as many classrooms and reading to as many kids and talking to as many civic groups as possible.
DP: How has your family influenced you in this process? Were they there cheering you on Saturday night?
CM: Oh yeah, you can ask just about any of the other pageant girls. My fan club had matching "Team Cara" shirts which my mom had made, and they had little paint sticks with my picture on them that they were waving around. They all flew up from Arkansas. I had an outstanding fan club. You know, they told me originally—my dad sat me down and was like, "You know, Cara, I support you in everything you do, but I just I don't get it." I don't have, like, a pageant mom or pageant parents. They didn't really understand what I was doing, but they were so supportive the whole way. And at the end, I was like, "I couldn't have done it without you guys." They were very supportive.
DP: How do you feel about postponing your senior year at Princeton?
CM: That is something I struggled with, you know, in making that decision, but I did go into Miss New Jersey Week knowing that if I did win, that was something I would be doing because being Miss New Jersey for a year and finishing my senior year at Princeton are both such massive responsibilities, and I really want to take full advantage of both. I'll be taking full advantage of each in its turn. I'll miss Princeton, but I will still be in New Jersey so I plan on stopping by occasionally.