Taylor Lee is not one to let an opportunity pass her by. This spring and summer have been a whirlwind of activity thanks to an Instagram post about the Miss New Jersey USA Pageant that crossed her path earlier this year. As an advocate for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) opportunities in urban and rural communities, Lee decided to jump into the pageant world because she hopes to use the Miss New Jersey USA platform to encourage as many young people to pursue STEM careers as possible.
Ms. Lee also has the potential to be the first out Black lesbian Miss New Jersey USA. In June, Lee attended the Montclair location for the 12th Annual Equality Walk hosted by Garden State Equality. There she met members of Out Montclair as well as local politicians and Governor Murphy. Lee said, “As the first lesbian Black female competing for the Miss New Jersey USA title, I am proud to be a member of the LGBTQIA community and want others to remember you can follow your dreams and let love live.”
In addition to her day job as co-founder and Director of Business Solutions at LesWee LLC, Lee has been preparing to compete in the 2021 Miss New Jersey USA pageant taking place on July 31 and August 1, 2021. So, in between Grant writing and research for S.T.E.M industries and educational organizations, Lee is practicing her interviewing skills, choosing business outfits, gowns, swimsuits, and fundraising for the fees and supplies needed to compete. She’s also in the middle of earning her Bachelor of Science in Computer Science at Colorado Technical University. Oh, and as of a few months ago, Ms. Lee is also planning her wedding to her fiancée Cynthia Sweeney. Along with our congratulations, she has a full plate!
Happily, Taylor Lee took the time to answer some questions for us despite her busy schedule.
Baristanet: What are you most excited about/nervous about surrounding the Miss NJ USA pageant?
Taylor: Throughout my preparation, I have endured many obstacles surrounding the Miss New Jersey USA pageant and what it stands for. I really believe the pageant is to express women’s empowerment, true beauty, and education. I have come to realize expressing your beauty has its limitations. What works for me and makes me feel beautiful and look my best doesn’t is not allowed.
With my thick curly hair and sensitive dark skin I feel comfortable to have my makeup and hair team who has worked with my hair and sensitive skin all the time. At the Pageant Orientation in July, all contestants were informed that you must use the Miss New Jersey USA makeup and hair sponsor or we must do our own hair and makeup. No outside makeup or hair stylists are allowed to come. I asked if, due to COVID-19 safety protocols, would I be able to go to my own booked room during makeup and hair times, and I was told no. This immediately made me super nervous thinking about having to cancel my hair and makeup artist and thinking “Will I have time to do my own hair and makeup competition weekend?” and if not, who will be doing it. I hope to see better resources for women of color to feel the most comfortable and beautiful to compete.
Baristanet: Who were some of your inspirations?
Taylor: Katherine Johnson was one of my greatest inspirations, especially the work she did to enable the US space program to progress and be where it is today. She taught me the importance of understanding and learning topics in STEM. She also taught me how important it is to stand up for your work and be a role model to teach Black women they can strive for a goal and achieve it.
Baristanet: What do STEM fields have to offer girls and young women, especially girls and young women of underrepresented backgrounds? What do they have to offer fields in STEM?
Taylor: My goal is to create more programs for young women that show them how science, technology, engineering, and mathematics play a huge role in our everyday lives and teach them how some of those jobs are most critical to our country’s economic development, growth, and success. My STEM initiative focuses on ensuring the younger generations have access to STEM no matter who or where they are.
STEM will also provide young women in underrepresented areas the opportunity to have a healthy educational escape and provide financial stability for their future.
STEM programs will also build young women’s confidence in STEM with quicker problem solving skills, and it will enable them to pursue STEM school electives, join a club or programs, and pursue more STEM degree programs increasing our country’s competitiveness in STEM. If there were more minority women in STEM, we would have less demand in our workforce, more women to help boost our economy, and more advocates for better safety and equality throughout STEM fields.
Baristanet: It’s been a whirlwind of activity since you applied to the pageant in the spring. How did you take the leap to commit to it and follow through? How has it affected your everyday life?
Taylor: With my hectic schedule as a full time student, business owner, executive legal research assistant, and now an official state contestant in the Miss New Jersey USA pageant, I had to really buckle down on scheduling out my day into four parts. It has been constant new clients, homework assignments, pageant preparation, and fundraising surrounding the pageant. This has taught me better time management, but it also made me lean on my business partner and fiancée Cynthia Sweeney a lot more in business, helping me out with my homework, and styling my pageant weekend wardrobe.
Baristanet: How does competing as an openly gay Black woman influence your platform or focus for the pageant, if at all?
Taylor: I believe it can impact me both positively and negatively for those who aren’t comfortable with openly gay women. I understand some people would rather not know, and on the other hand, it’s a huge advantage to show my LGBTQIA+ community that you can go for your dreams, no matter who you love or who you choose to be.
Baristanet: Let’s talk Montclair and New Jersey! What are your favorite places to eat? Hang out? Get away? And why.
Taylor: My favorite place to get a good BLT is Hot Bagels Abroad, and for pizza and pasta it’s Enzo’s. Tinga Taqueria has my favorite barbecue chicken burrito. For a date night or hanging out with friends, Halcyon never disappoints.
I love working out in Branch Brook Park, and one of my favorite places to get away is at King Spa in Palisades Park. I can clear my mind with no technology, multiple saunas, and the best Korean chicken teriyaki platter I’ve ever tasted.
Baristanet: What is something you miss about Montclair or the area from growing up?
Taylor: I miss Charlie Brown’s Steakhouse in Upper Montclair, I believe it closed in 2010. They had the best cheeseburger and french fries with a side Caesar salad.
Baristanet: What advice do you have for younger people navigating Montclair and life today that you wish someone had told you?
Taylor: Take advantage of all the programs, clubs, resources, and activities that your school and community has to offer, you never know what you could miss out on.
Baristanet: What is something that surprises you about Montclair?
Taylor: What surprises me about Montclair is how it is slowly merging to become city-like to increase our town’s revenue and enhance tourist’s attraction to Montclair’s small businesses. I didn’t think it would happen until about 2024, but I have been proven wrong. There is soo much new development for new families and businesses to start up and grow.
Baristanet: What is something that you can always rely on in Montclair?
Taylor: I can always count on awesome vibes, state and local government community involvement, support for the LGBTQIA+ community, great food, and that it’s still one of the best places to just walk around and see beautiful scenery.
Contribute to Taylor’s fundraising campaign to defray the costs of the pageant here: Help Taylor Lee Become Miss New Jersey USA 2021. And consider supporting her in person at the Hilton Parsippany Hotel at the end of this month as she competes to become Montclair’s own Miss New Jersey USA 2021! Ticket information is here: Miss New Jersey USA Pageant.