By LAUREN PEACOCK
For Montclair Local
Montclair resident Taylor Lee is hoping to defy expectations in the pageant world and become a role model for those who are part of the LGBTQ, Black and STEM communities.
The 24-year-old Montclair High School graduate will compete in the Miss New Jersey USA Pageant from July 30 through Aug. 1 at the Hilton Parsippany hotel. She describes herself as the first Black and openly gay contestant at Miss New Jersey USA.
Lee applied to take part in a pageant once before — as a young child, in Georgia.
“I got into pageants when I was 5 years old,” she said. “At my first pageant, they said I didn’t fit in, so I didn’t actually make it to competing.”
No one ever said Lee had been ruled out because she was Black, she said. But when she later watched a video of the competition, she said she only saw white faces.
“As I got older, I decided to get into pageants again to kill the stereotype that Black women can’t do well in pageants and to accomplish my goal of competing in one,” Lee said.
She saw an ad for Miss New Jersey USA on Instagram in early May of this year, applied, got an interview and received an email confirmation that she made it to the first round of competition, all within a few days.
Lee is currently a student at Colorado Technical University, concentrating in computer science engineering. She is also a co-owner and director of business solutions at Leswee LLC, a grant writing and research company.
She hopes to promote the creation of more STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — programs in New Jersey.
In March, Lee held virtual meetings with professionals in the STEM world, seeking ideas for involving more young women in the field. She now hopes to build on that work to start a nonprofit providing after-school classes for grades kindergarten through 12.
“My goal is to have a larger platform to foster innovation by starting my own organization with young men and women,” Lee said. “I want to increase our state’s competitiveness in STEM. Once I become crowned, I want to ensure young men and women have more programs, online or in school, and give them access to materials they wouldn’t have access to otherwise.”
She said Miss New Jersey USA is the perfect opportunity to advocate for more STEM programs.
“We really need to make sure everyone is taking heart to STEM development and how important it is for young girls and boys,” she said. “I also want to show young women like myself that if you put your mind to it, you can go for it.”
Lee said she noticed, observing pageants, “there is a cookie cutout — all the women look a certain way and have a specific complexion.” And she said many competitors haven’t used their platforms to foster messages, or to educate people the way she plans to. “It’s more than just being beautiful and winning the crown. It’s further than beauty,” she said.
Lee hopes to represent the LGBTQ community at the competition, as well as to inspire others in the community to be comfortable and confident in taking risks.
“I’m advocating for more inclusion and diversity as well, and definitely a lot of equality across the board,” she said. “One thing that I am standing for is being a public figure. I want to tell people, ‘You guys can do this, and compete in any competition you want to regardless of your sexuality.’”
Lee takes pride in her own journey — overcoming a 12th-grade injury that happened when a classmate (who was also a football player) ran into her during gym class, leaving her with a displaced hip, a back injury and a concussion. She ended up missing her entire senior year experience.
But through research and understanding of science, she told Montclair Local, she found ways to feel better — eating better, finding solutions in alternative medicine, using natural resources such as herbs and plants instead of over-the-counter medicine. And the experience made her want to help others.
“I was depressed, stressed, physically incapable, and I was able to overcome it by never giving up and trying new ways when certain suggestions didn’t work,” she said. “It made me want to teach others how to keep moving forward when they’re so physically and traumatically hurt, and how to stay positive.”
In her free time, she loves to cook, research, hang with her two cats and travel. She is currently learning Mandarin.
To compete, Lee must pay a sponsorship fee of $1,295, purchase $3,000 in wardrobe items and pay for a $500 pageant and training coach. She’s asking for support through a fundraiser at gofundme.com/f/help-taylor-lee-future-miss-new-jersey-usa.