I grew up in a very small town called Winder, GA! We have more cows than people! Not sure how far back you want me to go, but as a child, I was very shy and timid. My mom kept me in dancing classes my entire life, which taught me persistence, discipline, and loyalty. It inevitably brought me out of my shell, taught me confidence, and I’d like to think I learned some stage presence! In middle school I started cheering competitively and continued dancing in cheering throughout high school. I gradated in 2007, winning “Most Likely to Succeed” and a spot on the Homecoming Court..
Who or what inspired you to get into pageantry?
Honestly, I got a letter in the mail about one and I thought it would be a great idea to win scholarship money for college. So, I entered my first pageant, and I enjoyed it to much I decided to continue. I wasn’t one of those crazy Toddlers and Tiaras types. I stuck to two bigger systems, America’s National Teenager and Miss Teen USA. Competing at Miss Teen USA was my first live Network Television experience. From that moment on, I knew I wanted to pursue entertainment further.
You are now into acting, did pageantry prepare you for acting?
Pageantry gave me many opportunities modeling wise, some great contacts, and an experience with live television, but I can’t credit my acting to pageantry. In fact, my coaches had to “de-pageant” me so I could learn to look natural in my auditions, and play characters. In pageants, it’s all about how you walk, and look, and acting is the total opposite. You can’t watch yourself in the mirror. It becomes rehearsed, not raw. It is a nice conversation piece in the audition room though. Casting directors will see that on my resume and call me Miss Georgia, so it’s definitely an ice breaker.
Tell us a little about the upcoming film that you are in?
I was fortunate enough to book a lead in an upcoming 3D Roger Corman film! He’s a legend! I am so thrilled for it to come out. My acting coach, Jeffrey Marcus trained me for the audition, and also helped me with the script. This is my first big acting gig. I get to play a nerd who turns in to a pretty cheerleader, except the side effect is that I grow 50ft tall! It’s called “Attack of the 50ft. Cheerleader” and I play Cassie. It is a comedy, with a little taste of horror. I got to work with some industry veterans, like John Landis, Sean Young, Treat Williams, and Ted Raimi! The other actors I worked with were brilliant, and I am now extremely close with two of my co-stars. I really hope this opens more doors for me.
What can you tell us about the organization HBBQs?
The Pageant of Hope™ gives children and teens who face serious illnesses and challenges the opportunity to be Prince or Princess for a day. I started this in 2006. It’s a noncompetitive pageant that invites kids of all ages to shine in the spotlight in front of family and friends and be celebrated for who they are. On March 3rd, 2012 it will be featured on ABC’s new television series, Everyday Health, which highlights people who have made significant contributions to the health and well being of those less fortunate. Today, more than 800 kids in cities across the country – as well as in South Africa and Cuba – have participated in the Pageant of Hope™, organized by my nonprofit organization HBBQs, Inc. The event continues to reach children all over the world, bringing light into their lives and smiles to their faces.
Everyone is a winner in the Pageant of Hope™. Me and my team of former pageant winners, or “Has-Been Beauty Queens” (HBBQs), treat participants to an afternoon of pampering, followed by each child having the opportunity to walk across the stage in the spotlight, looking his or her best and feeling like a million dollars. Every participant receives a special pageant title and a crown to wear, and two lucky contests receive the title of Prince of Hope and Princess of Hope. At HBBQs, Inc., our motto is to “Touch each child… One tiara at a time.” We work with hospitals, community centers, parents, local organizers, pageant industry leaders, and celebrities to personalize each Pageant of Hope™ to the communities we serve and the children and teens who participate. Our priority is to make each Pageant of Hope™ a safe, fun, and positive environment that celebrates kids for being just who they are.
How did you go about transitioning from a pageant winner to head of an organization? What steps did you take?
The idea came to me because of pageants. In 2000, I lost both of my grandfathers to cancer, so I combined two things I was passionate about (raising money for cancer research, and pageants) and created this event! It originally started as a pageant for kids with cancer, and then we recently branched out to all kids facing challenges.After I came up with the pageant, I took the necessary steps and formed a 501(c)3 organization, so that we could accept donations. Once that was established, I started applying for grants and scholarships so I could have enough funding to hold some pageants in different states. I won several national awards like COSMOGirl! CG Cup, Build-A-Bear Huggable Hero, Do Something Award, Caring Award, and many others. Once I had funding, and an established team of volunteers, we hit the ground running! Our first pageant was held in my hometown of Winder, GA.
Recently you were at the People’s Choice Awards, what did you do and how was that experience?
This was one of my coolest jobs to date. I absolutely love live shows, and this was my first one since the 2007 Teen USA Pageant. I actually had to audition to get the job. The official title was “Statuette”. It’s the person who brings the trophy to the presenter of the award. Personally, I think I had the best award because I got to share the stage with the phenomenally talented Betty White! The clip of me applauding the cast of “Hot in Cleveland” has been shown on the Today Show, Access Hollywood, and a few others.
What would you tell those who look at pageants negatively?
I think TV shows shed a negative light on pageantry. Having had a small taste of reality TV, I learned quickly that producers can put you in situations and set up curtained scripted scenarios to make for “good television”. The shows about pageants do just that. I think pageants teach women good communication skills, confidence, and grace. Only enter a pageant if you are in it for the right reasons.
Are you a sports fan? If so who do you support?
Die Hard! Yes! You can’t be a southern girl and not be a fan of the Dawgs, Falcons, or Braves! I think my family would disown me! I grew up so close to Athens, GA I had such a fun time going to football games with my friends. I didn’t wash my hands for DAYS after I had the opportunity to pet UGA the mascot! Kidding… a little. Being in Los Angeles I kind of adopted the Lakers, but I would always choose the Hawks if it came down to it. 🙂
What more would you like to accomplish in your life?
In my philanthropic life, I would like to be able to mentor other people who want to hold “Pageants of Hope” in their home states. I would like to see my organization continue to expand internationally as well. Career wise, I would like to book more film roles. I want to continue to explore comedic roles. I would also like to book a Soap Opera because I hear it’s easy work! Kidding… Cameron Mathison and Susan Lucci are my heroes.
Is there anything that you’d like to say to all of your followers/supporters, and even to those who may be introduced to you for the first time by this interview?
I am just getting started! I would like for them to know that I chose acting as a profession because I care about giving back. It isn’t to be noticed by TMZ or to be recognized on the street. I genuinely care about my philanthropic work and I want to use any “fame” I have as a platform to give me a bigger voice, to reach a bigger audience, and to donate back.
Learn more about Jena and her charitable efforts on her official website