The Miss Greater Niagara pageant means more than a silver crown to Jennifer Starkey, who won the title in September. True, she's going on to compete for the Miss New York title in June 2006, and, if she's successful, she'll head for the Miss America pageant a few months later.
But the 19-year-old Falls resident sees the title as a vehicle to bring home to an increasingly larger audience messages she feels passionate about, from helping the needy to eradicating hate crimes.
Her talent in the Miss Greater Niagara pageant was belly-dancing, but it's her mind that seems to be working the hardest.
When she's not living on campus at Buffalo State College, where she is majoring in communications, Starkey stays with her mother, Brenda Nelson, in Niagara Falls. Her father is a construction worker in Houston.
Between her duties as Miss Greater Niagara, her studies at Buffalo State and her part-time job as a customer service representative with an Amherst Internet provider, Starkey has a busy schedule.
Niagara Weekend caught up with the green-eyed red-head last week at the home of her grandparents, Anne and Harold Nelson, in the Town of Niagara.
What got you into all this, besides your obvious good looks?
My initial purpose was to get money for school -- $800 for the Miss Greater Niagara title -- but as I learned about the program, I realized there is a lot more to it. Having a crown on your head opens a lot of doors. I couldn't have gotten my message out there without this title.
And what is that message?
My platform in the Miss Greater Niagara program was cultural diversity in education. Now I get to talk about racial prejudice, ethnic and religious issues to people of all ages in schools and community groups. My hope is that by educating others, we can prevent racial prejudice and hate crimes from ever starting. Younger children look up to a person in my position, and I talk to them about quality-of-life issues, from not smoking to being a responsible citizen.
And are you getting the message across?
Sometimes you really don't think you're making a difference and you feel yourself getting to some kind of breaking point. But then one of the kids in the class will come up to me and tell me I've influenced them to change whatever it is in their lives they were doing wrong. That is really rewarding. After speaking at a school, for example, teachers will call or e-mail me and tell me I had a positive impact on the students.
Is that the sort of life you see for yourself, as a teacher or communicator?
As a communications major, I have several options. The future is an open door, and I'm not sure what's on the other side. I might start out as a local TV news anchor and work my way up to the national scene. I've always been interested in politics, so that's another direction I could go. Or, like former Miss America Vanessa Williams, I can see myself as an actress. I won a best supporting actor role when I was at Niagara-Wheatfield High School.
Winning Miss America would be fabulous, but first you've got the state pageant. How confident are you as you prepare for that?
You have to have confidence. If you go in not sure of yourself, the judges pick that up right away. That doesn't mean I won't be very nervous. I get most nervous when I go in for the interview segment of the program. You stand at a podium and seven judges ask you everything from personal questions to your views on controversial issues, such as gay marriage, abortion and the war in Iraq.
Without getting too deeply into all that, what is your position, for example, on Iraq?
My opinion on the war in Iraq is that we realize we went in for the wrong reasons, but now we're there. We can't just give up and withdraw immediately. We have to start what we finished.
Politics might be a good career for you. You're quite involved in community service in the area, are you not?
I do a lot of community work. I've been a volunteer at Opportunities Unlimited since I was 15, wrapping Christmas gifts to raise money for the organization. I'm the public relations chairperson for the Niagara Falls Kiwanis Club. This weekend, I'll be helping collect food from the Food Bank of Western New York for needy families. I was the guest host at the Niagara Falls Firefighters Telethon at Niagara Falls High School earlier this month. I ended up speaking on stage for five hours as the phone calls came in. It was actually a lot of fun. I was the only girl up there, and they were pretending to give me a hard time, but I'm tough and I can take it.
You're also extremely fit. Do you work out for these pageants?
You've got to keep your muscles toned. I have a personal trainer, Ryan Ebling, and we work out together at the Buff State gym. I'm constantly preparing for the Miss New York State pageant. It's hard work, but I want to win that title and reach a broader audience.
What do your friends think of all this?
They think I'm crazy. It's very sad, because when my best friends call me to get together, every day is literally booked up and I have to pencil them in where I can. They're very supportive, though.
How do you fit in all the things you have to do?
Quite honestly I have no idea. Luckily I'm a multitasker. At the gym, I study while I'm on the treadmill. At the end of the month I'm going to Houston to visit my dad and his side of the family for eight days, so that will be a welcome break.
And then it's back and onward and upward, to Miss New York and Miss America?
I don't think there's been a major pageant winner from Western New York for many years. I hope to change that.