Thursday was a very special day at in Bloomfield, when Miss New Jersey USA herself, Michelle Leonardo, came to visit.
To the delight of the kindergarten to fourth-grade students, Leonardo read stories out loud, chatted amiably, and gave each of them a souvenir photo to take home. Best of all, she wore a white satin sash bearing the words, “Miss New Jersey USA” in silver lettering and the sparkling tiara she had been crowned in when she won her title last October.
Throughout the day, Leonardo spoke to class after class about real-life issues like bullying, perseverance and loyalty. Responding to some students’ obvious shyness, she tried to put them at ease with meaningful discussion.
“I didn’t always win,” she confided. “Things did not always go my way. I’ve gone on more casting calls than I can count up to, and 99.8 percent of the time I didn’t book [the job],” she said sincerely.
Another time she said, “The best thing I ever did was be a good role model for my little sister. I would give up every crown and every trophy I ever won just to be her sister.”
Leonardo spoke frequently about holding tight to her dreams, and not allowing anyone to discourage her from achieving them.
“I had so many people in my life say, you can’t be Miss New Jersey USA. You can’t be this, you can’t be that,” she told the rapt students sitting cross-legged on the rug of the Media Center. “[But] one of my favorite quotes is, ‘my greatest pleasure in life is doing what others say I cannot do.’ I always like proving people wrong.”
Leonardo was visiting the school by invitation of Demarest Media Specialist Rosemary Vetrano, who, when necessary, helped keep the children's excitement in check.
"Absolutely some of the kids really got it," Vetrano marvelled, as one class left the media center and another came in. "They were talking about doing their best, not giving up. The fourth and sixth graders were really mesmerized. They got the idea of the hard work ethic."
As it happens, Vetrano is a personal friend of the Leonardo family. She lives next door to Leonardo’s grandmother, Lorraine Margotta, with whom Leonardo spent summers growing up.
Leonardo attends Suffolk University in Massachusetts, where she is a junior majoring in Broadcast Journalism (she hopes to be an ESPN reporter some day), but she is a real Jersey girl at heart. Born in Montclair, she visits her family in Tinton Falls as often as possible, as well as her Nana in Bloomfield and her boyfriend in Hoboken, all the while making frequent Miss New Jersey appearances across the state.
“It makes me happy [when she visits],” said Margotta, a lifelong Bloomfield resident who had accompanied her granddaughter to Demarest for the day. Margotta sat in the back of the room while Leonardo spoke to the students, becoming quietly tearful when Vetrano showed a videotape of Leonardo being crowned Miss New Jersey USA.
“I’ve watched the video a thousand times,” she said when it was over. “But I can’t help crying every time I watch it.”
“Michelle is a good kid. No matter how big she gets, she’ll never forget where she came from,” said Vetrano, beaming. “How many beauty queens would bring their nanas along for the day?”
In fact, Leonardo does seem to gracefully balance the hard work of a college student with the glamour and notoriety of the pageant world, perhaps because she has never known any other life. Competing in pageants since the age of five, Leonardo says she learned early on the value of persistence, resilience and setting clear goals.
“I'm always just Michelle, even when I'm "Miss New Jersey" at an event. I know that success isn’t permanent and failure isn’t fatal,” she says cheerfully. “That’s what keeps me grounded.”
Michelle Leonardo on Facebook: www.missnewjerseyteenusa.com