Wantagh’s annual July Fourth parade may have been canceled, along with a host of other seasonal events that might have risked the health of the hamlet’s residents in the face of concerns about rising Covid-19 infections. But Ella Stevens, the organizer of the 65th Miss Wantagh pageant, along with last year’s Miss Wantagh court and this year’s contestants, were determined that the nearly six-decade tradition of crowning the winner on Independence Day would remain unbroken.
Piecing together virtual segments, the June 30 pageant was streamed by the contestants themselves via Facebook, Stevens said. They also posted cameo summaries of their proposed initiatives.
The final ceremony used the same streaming technology, as Grace Massari, last year’s first runner-up, was crowed Miss Wantagh 2020 by Juliet Watstein, the outgoing title-holder. Erin Cunnane was first runner-up, Angelina Maciak, second runner-up, and Sara Jacobs, third runner-up. Rounding out the 2020 court, Valerie Pastore and Nicole Tobia were named ambassadors.
Tobia, a rising sophomore at Wantagh High School, was the only newcomer to this year’s court, having served the 2019 court as part of the pageant’s senior club, which enables freshmen to shadow the court and gain an understanding of the roles the young women play in the community. She was looking forward to strengthening her bonds with the “young exemplary women” in this year’s pageant, she said.
Massari, a rising junior at Wantagh High School, emphasized the many benefits she received in her year as first runner-up. “I’m so grateful for this opportunity that comes with amazing experiences and skills,” she said. “I can’t wait for another year [of being] involved in this wonderful community. I’ve learned many things that I will take with me along my journey through life. That’s what being part of this organization does.”
“Miss Wantagh isn’t just a beauty pageant in the traditional sense that most people think of them,” Stevens said. “Yes, they are lovely young women, but it is their inner beauty that we feel is at least as important as any of their physical traits.”
The Miss Wantagh court serves at a number of community and schools events, both singly and in groups. For example, they can be spotted at Wantagh High School’s Homecoming festivities, visiting senior assisted-living facilities or helping with local school reading programs.
Initiatives developed by title-holders in past years include the annual Unity Day, when students in Wantagh schools sign pledges to refrain from bullying; the Women of Wantagh awards, naming women who have made outstanding contributions to the community; and Watstein’s signature efforts to address mental health issues, both among her classmates and in the wider community.
At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the Miss Wantagh court volunteered to pick up shopping or run errands for elderly or other at-risk members of the community. And the court has an ongoing connection with local elected officials to help them gain insight into the behind-the-scenes workings of the community.
As part of the online presentation introducing this year’s candidates to the community, past court members spoke of the benefits of their experiences in the program. Without exception, they all emphasized an enhanced self-confidence that has helped them in the years since.
“I gained several valuable skills from the Miss Wantagh organization, but I am especially grateful … for enhancing my communication skills,” 2014 Second Runner-up Christina Perola said. “This has deeply impacted my life by making me a more effective student, leader and person.”
Miss Wantagh 2015, Keri Balnis, parlayed her communications skills into a career in media: She is now the studio media coordinator for the Insider and Business Insider news publications.
The 2016 laureate, Emma Carey, said the skills she learned in her years in the program were crucial to her subsequent development. “Being Miss Wantagh was a catalyst for my career and has granted me various opportunities atypical for most teenage girls,” she said.
Miss Wantaghs have gone on to careers in law, medicine, the media and education, Stevens said.