Meet the ‘strong’ Miss New York USA queens finally vying for 2021 crown

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Last held in January 2020, the Miss New York USA pageant wraps up Friday at the Resorts World Catskills hotel.

One hundred sixty women, ages 18 to 28 and from every corner of the state, will compete in front of a live audience in three categories: interview, evening gown and swimwear. The winner will go on to compete in the the Miss USA Pageant in November.

“I’m amazed that considering we’re still going through a pandemic, they work so hard and . . . still manage to look beautiful through all the hardship,” said second-time judge and fashion designer Antonio Estrada.

Many of the contestants are far from beauty-queen clichés. An aspiring cop, a banker and a former ballerina are among those competing.

“This is why I love New York: It’s the melting pot of nothing but courageous, strong individuals who are all competing for the title,” Estrada said.

Meet a selection of the 160 fabulous women vying for the crown.

Rachelle di Stasio, 24, Upper West Side

Former ballerina-turned-Wilhelmina model Rachelle di Stasio struts her stuff in her first beauty pageant.

After surviving a sexual assault at age 4, di Stasio, an American Ballet Theatre dancer-turned-Wilhelmina model wants to help other victims. “I’ve been able to use my voice and strength to get me where I am today, and want to let other women know that their past doesn’t affect their self-worth or who they are,” said the contestant, who has worked with the nonprofit Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) and plans to share her personal story during the interview portion. “[I’m] ready for my voice to be heard, my story to be shared and be part of something beautiful,” she recently told her 108,000 followers on Instagram.

Nathalie Borgella, 27, Hell’s Kitchen

Figure skating phenom Nathalie Borgella is competing in her sixth Miss New York USA pageant.
Figure skating phenom Nathalie Borgella is competing in her sixth Miss New York USA pageant.

Growing up with a blind father and little money, the first-generation Haitian-American didn’t have it easy, but found a passion in figure skating. “It seemed like all the odds were stacked against me,” said Borgella, who persevered to become a high level figure skater — and help others. She’s now a coach and director for the nonprofit organization Figure Skating in Harlem, where she works with low-income girls of color. “I strongly believe that where there’s a will there’s always a way to achieve your dreams,” she said. This will be her sixth and final year competing in the pageant, and she’s loved the contrast it strikes with skating. “I’m used to being in leggings with my hair in a bun on the ice at 6 a.m.,” she said. “Getting glam is a treat.”

Heather Nunez, 25, Kew Garden Hills

The woman in red will soon be wearing blue: Future NYPD officer Heather Nunez is entering the academy in October.
The woman in red will soon be wearing blue: Future NYPD officer Heather Nunez is entering the academy in October.
Credit: Brooily Vargas; Sebastian Melendez

As a teenager she was in an abusive relationship and only able to escape after turning to law enforcement for help. Now, after graduating from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Nunez, who grew up in Queens, is planning to start the NYPD Academy in October. While these are fraught times for the force, she’s intent on making a difference. “We need more people on duty who know what it’s like and can help bridge the gap between both communities,” she said. “I always aspired to be a police officer as a young girl because I witnessed so much and was motivated to put an end to it.”

Emily Mahana, 24, Syracuse

Miss New York USA contestant Emily Mahana
Upstater Emily Mahana is making her debut in this year’s pageant.
Courtesy of Emily Mahana (left); Carlos Velez (right)

First-time contestant Mahana is a former Irish dancer and wants to educate women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics.) “I started my STEM Sundays with Emily series during COVID to educate children about STEM during the pandemic using household materials. Every week, there is a new episode and a different hands-on activity,” she said.

Lauren Reilly, 28, Hell’s Kitchen

Lauren Reilly, finance whiz and competitive swimmer, wears many hats -- and hopes a crown will be one of them.
Lauren Reilly, finance whiz and competitive swimmer, wears many hats — and hopes a crown will be one of them.

First-generation Chinese-American Lauren Reilly is a wealth management associate at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, an entrepreneur — during the pandemic, she started her own company, Hunts of New York, that sells both used and new discounted designer items — and a former competitive swimmer working to get others in the water. Reilly gives her time to the Special Olympics of New York as a certified swim coach and council member. “I want to lead by example and show our youth that we will face our adversities, but we will also rise above it,” she said. “We need to be brave to find our identities, to try new things, and [be open] to new ideas and new journeys.”  

Sandra Popielarz, 27, Jamestown

Sandra Popielarz has beauty and brains: She's an Ivy League grad.
Sandra Popielarz has beauty and brains: She’s an Ivy League grad.
Photo credit: Franz Orban (2)

The Ivy League grad from the University of Pennsylvania loves to give back. She started sewing American flag pillow cases for US soldiers overseas and heart pillows for cancer patients as a kid. “Volunteering makes me happy and fulfills me. When I am stressed or sad volunteering helps clear my mind and brings me happiness to cheer others up,” she said.

Maryam Jaafar, 26, Queens

The Queens College grad has a BS in finance and international business and minored in philosophy. “I worked in corporate for over two years and during the pandemic I decided to start my own modestwear website (called Mary Dean Modesty). I am currently focusing my time on my own business as this has been a dream of mine since I was a young girl,” she said.

Katherine McQuade, 25, Whitestone

Miss New York USA contestant Katherine McQuade
Katherine McQuade is in it to win it: “I always pictured myself winning as a little girl.”
Photos by Carlos Velez (2)

The industrious beauty launched her own marketing agency, KMM Consulting, and competed in her first Miss New York USA pageant last year, nabbing a spot in the Top 20. “I have been competing in pageants since the age of 10 and grew up watching Miss USA on television,” said McQuade. “I always pictured myself winning as a little girl and now that I am competing for the title of Miss New York USA, I am one step closer to attaining my childhood dream.”  

Heather Marie Thompson, 24, Glenville

Heather Marie Thompson is competing in her fourth Miss New York USA pageant.
Heather Marie Thompson is competing in her fourth Miss New York USA pageant.
Credit: Carlos Velez Photography

The mental health awareness advocate believes in the “power” of sharing one’s journey. “Each time I compete I learn more about myself and the competition. I have become more confident in who I am as a person, from my personality to my looks,” said Thompson, who dreams of modeling her own swimwear line in Sports Illustrated, but still holds one chief purpose in life: “The most important goal I have is to keep spreading positivity and the importance of mental health.”

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