WEST ORANGE, NJ - The life of a college student is multi-faceted. Classes, clubs, friends, social events, studying, applications, jobs and internships take up most of the time, leaving little room for relaxation or even sleep. Yet Pleasantville, New Jersey resident and former TAPinto.net intern for TAP into West Orange, Amanda Martinez manages another heaping serving on an already full plate as a student at Montclair State University: competing in Miss America pageants. 

Martinez got her start in 2008 at the age of 13, when she followed her older sister’s footsteps and competed in and won a local pageant called Miss Copillion. Though winning was an unexpected bonus, Martinez cites participating in Miss Copillion as the moment she knew she would devote herself to pageants.

“I figured out that pageantry is what I wanted to do. Pageantry is what I was into,” she said.

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In 2010, Martinez placed second runner-up in the Miss Hispanic Alliance of Atlantic County pageant. A year later, she held the titles of Miss Puerto Rico of Atlantic County and Miss Pleasantville, and had launched herself into volunteerism—an often overlooked yet integral aspect of pageantry.

“A lot of stuff goes on behind the scenes that people don’t know about, like volunteering, doing paperwork, working on personal resumes, interview skills—so throughout the process of competing, I was learning all of these different things that were helping me for my future,” Martinez said. “And that’s why I fell in love with pageantry. It’s not only about stepping on stage and having your hair and your makeup done and looking pretty, but it’s about putting in the hard work that sometimes goes unseen.”

Her growing success allowed her to fly to Puerto Rico to be honored for her community service and volunteer work in her New Jersey community.  Her parents emigrated from Puerto Rico before she was born.

“I was learning about the issues they were facing in Puerto Rico, and I went into their towns and I met with their children and I went to their youth centers. So that was a really great opportunity for me—even though they’re part of the United States, I kind of took my platform nationwide.”

She then discovered a program that would help catapult her to even greater heights: the Miss America Organization, which “exists to provide personal and professional opportunities for young women and to promote their voices in culture, politics and the community,” according to the organization’s website. Martinez became interested in competing in the Miss America Pageant, but learned that she first must win a local title in her home state of New Jersey and then the title of Miss New Jersey itself before becoming eligible to compete in the national competition. So at the age of 18, she set off with the goal of doing just that.

Right off the bat, Martinez met the challenge of entering the organization at a later age than most of the other contestants.

“These girls had been competing since they were 12-13 years old. I had been competing, but not in the Miss America Organization,” said Martinez. “These girls went through the teen titles, so they had the experience, they knew what the organization was looking for, they knew the rules, they knew the regulations. And here I was, a little bit older at 18, so compared to the other girls it was a late start for me.”

The first task on Martinez’s list was to win a local title. She competed once, and did not place. She competed a second time, and again fell short of the title. Five local pageants later, and she still could not place a check mark on her list.

She began to feel discouraged: “After the fifth, sixth time, I’m wondering, ‘what am I doing wrong? Why am I not winning?’”

After seven losses, one last opportunity came in the form of a mass email to every New Jersey competitor: the Miss Middlesex County pageant to be held in March 2015.

“I realized that this was my last chance to go to Miss New Jersey, and I wanted to go to Miss New Jersey,” Martinez said.

She took time for introspection before committing to the competition, and decided to reach back to her roots and once again harness the authenticity and sincere joy that had helped her win Miss Copillion back in 2008.

She recounted, “I realized that at the end of the day, all you want is a genuine person—someone who’s real, someone who’s down to earth. So I told my family, ‘Listen, I’m going to compete.’ This was my make it or break it. I needed to prove to myself that if I put in the work, that I could win the title.”

Martinez threw herself into preparing for Miss Middlesex County for three months, working on interview skills, practicing dance to present as her talent, going to the gym to be ready for the swimsuit portion and rehearsing every aspect of pageantry every day.

The Miss Middlesex County Pageant Director, Sherrilyn McLaughling-Ryan, offered time at her dance studio for free to aid the girls preparing for the pageant. Martinez jumped at the opportunity and was able to not only practice her dance but learn new moves and techniques from other dancers.

When March finally came around, Martinez was ready to give all of herself to the competition. All of her preparations allowed her to win several preliminary awards at the pageant, including the interview, swimsuit and evening gown portions.

“I left everything I had on that stage,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘Is this really happening to me? Is this my moment?”

“Fast forward, and I won Miss Middlesex County.”

Martinez had finally won her local title, and McLaughlin-Ryan became her director.

“She’s got an inner joy. Everybody is different and everybody’s got talent, but Amanda is—the only word I can think of is ‘joyful,’” said McLaughlin-Ryan. “She’s happy, she’s excited to be a part of things, she’s excited to get things done. She knows she can affect change by inspiring people. And she’s engaged; she doesn’t just phone it in. She’s really excited to do things and meet new people.”

There was little time to harp on the success, however, as the Miss New Jersey Pageant was in a matter of months.

“So then Miss New Jersey begins. I have two months to prepare. Some girls have been preparing for Miss New Jersey for a year now, six months, eight months, their entire lives. But for me, it was more that I wanted to do it to see if I could. I just wanted to see how well I would do,” Martinez said.

Martinez competed in the Miss New Jersey Pageant at the Ocean Pier in Ocean City, NJ from June 10 to June 13, 2015. She again poured everything she had onto the stage, but ultimately met the familiar outcome of falling short of the title.

Despite having to end her journey to the Miss America Pageant, Martinez found she had gained a treasure more valuable than a crown.

“I didn’t win, but I can say that I had a great opportunity making new friends and creating a bond with the other girls,” she said. “We call it our sisterhood; it’s our ‘sorority’ in a sense. Everybody’s friends—it’s not like anything you see on TV. We go to lunch together, we go to the mall together, we help each other buy dresses. It’s just like having 25 sisters.”

Danielle Barger is one of these “sisters” who also began competing at 18, leading to a special bond between the two girls. She shares Martinez’s belief that the Miss America Organization fosters strong friendships between the contestants.

“All of the girls that compete in these pageants earn more than interview skills, public speaking skills and confidence; they gain sisters with or without a crown. Once you enter your first Miss America Organization pageant, you're a part of the family in and out of the pageant world. All of the young women I compete with have a special place in my life. Amanda is one of the people that always encourages me to do my best in every aspect of my life and always reminds me that my goals are achievable and to always move forward. Without this organization, I know without a doubt that I would not be the well rounded person I am today and I wouldn't have the bridesmaids to my future wedding that I do today,” said Barger.

Along with gaining friends, Martinez was able to grow her presence as a community activist and expand her volunteer work through competing in pageants with the Miss America Organization.

“It was about winning Miss New Jersey, but it was also about finding who I was. I don’t compete because I want to be pretty on stage, or because I want to do my hair and my makeup,” said Martinez.

In fact, what she holds most dearly is her volunteer platform, “Play Your Part, Prove Your Power.”

She explained, “It’s about community empowerment and creating mentors for our children. When I grew up, my community helped raise me, and I can say that from the bottom of my heart. I had a town who cared for me. I was a little girl growing up in a big town. And there were so many teachers, so many guidance counselors and principals—when you reach out for help, people really do help you. I base my platform around my life because there’s that girl who was once me. And I don’t know who that little girl or little boy is, but there’s that kid who’s looking at a big world and doesn’t know what to do. So I just want to do for someone what people have done for me; I want to give back what was given to me.”

Martinez’s passion for community service is also tied to her identity as a Latina. She aims to motivate young girls who share her heritage to follow their dreams, even if those dreams include accomplishments not often depicted as achieved by minorities. She hopes to inspire young Latina girls to take up pageantry if they want to, and combat the commonly held belief that competing in pageants requires exorbitant expenses.

“A lot of girls don’t know they can do it. They don’t know they can afford it. I want to be that voice to really spread the word that there’s not a lot of us who compete, but if we come together, we can make a difference,” Martinez said.

One way she battles the myth is to compete in her best friend’s prom dress, which she spent only $35 on in alterations.

“To this day I compete in that dress. It’s an absolutely beautiful dress. You don’t always need the new stuff, and that’s something that, once again, a lot of girls don’t know. You don’t have to go out and spend all this money.”

As the director of Martinez’s title, McLaughlin-Ryan manages her appearances, supports her community service events and commends her mission of inspiration.

“We had an appearance in Elizabeth and there were a lot of young girls there. Some were African American, some were Hispanic, so she really connected with them because they looked at her and could see themselves. And that’s so important, for kids to be able to see wonderful things happen for people who look like them. She’s great for doing that,” said McLaughlin-Ryan.

Participating in Miss America pageants not only brought Martinez a solid sisterhood and sense of purpose, but monetary rewards as well in the form of college scholarships. Scholarships awarded by both the pageants and her high school allowed her to pay for a large portion of her college tuition at Montclair State University.

“It’s an added bonus,” she said. “You’re competing to better yourself and to help pay for school. And that’s the thing about competing. It’s not about going out of your pockets to spend all this money on dresses and stuff like that.”

Competing in pageants has also helped prepare Martinez for professional life. In December 2015, she will graduate with a degree in Television and Digital Media with a concentration in Television Production. She one day hopes to become a news anchor and use her deft communication skills, which she attributes to pageantry.

“If it wasn’t for competing, I wouldn’t be as strong at communicating as I am today. And that goes for everyone who competes; they prepare you for life,” she said.

The road to graduation and journalism has been paved with media internships. While Martinez currently works at a radio station, she spent the spring of 2015 interning as a reporter for TAPInto.net, where she was able to mix what she calls the “pageant girl” with the journalist by covering community events close to her heart such as autism awareness and school programs.

“TAP really gave me the opportunity to get a lot of experience. I learned to talk to people and become a better writer. When you go into writing or journalism, you have to approach people, and you have to be approachable, and that’s something I learned at TAP. I learned how to communicate better.”

Ever the activist, Martinez also found opportunities to spread her volunteer platform while attending community events, further tying her experience as a pageant contestant with her role as a reporter.

“It’s just like anything else: you’re going there to better yourself,” she said.