By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
MAYS LANDING â€“ Miss America Suzette Charles helped bring the pageant back from the brink during one of its most tumultuous times in its history, taking on the crown when Vanessa Williams was forced to resign in 1984.
For six weeks, she reigned as Miss America, becoming only the second black to wear the crown after Williams. Today, looking as if she could enter the Miss America pageant again with a bright smile and engaging personality, Charles has returned to Mays Landing in the shadow of Atlantic City where she is making public appearance.
She is also pursuing her degree at Temple University after leaving it 38 years ago when she was named first runner-up at the pageant and then Miss America.
Proud of Accomplishments
“I am very proud yes, of what I have achieved in my life,” Charles told Front Runner New Jersey.com after a lifetime in the entertainment field while spending time as a wife, mother and history-making Miss America.
“Fast forward 30 some years later after putting both of my children through college; my daughter graduated Emory University in Atlanta and my son is currently at Vanderbilt. MoMa got ready to go back. I am currently a full time student at Temple University looking forward after 38 years to graduate in 2020.”
Charles has joined several local foundation boards since her return to Mays Landing. Those include the Atlantic City Ballet, The Pipe Organ Foundation in Boardwalk Hall, The Atlantic City Free Public Library and the Holocaust Project for Stockton University in addition to the Hamilton Historical Society in Mays Landing.
She was the grand marshal for the Celebrate America Parade presented by the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino this past September and hosted “Dancing Under the Atlantic City Stars” in October.
In her free time, she has been seen causally in the Atlantic City community, whether taking runs on the historic Boardwalk to being spotting at a local Toastmasters meeting with a friend she grew up with.
Embracing the Role of ‘Role Model’
Charles said she has come to embrace his position as a role model and is looking forward to a new phase in her life.
“I do understand my responsibility to advance myself as I am a role model for all people watching and who have supported me through my life,” Charles said. “I am blessed and my journey continues as I continue on a second life’s path of learning and growing.
“If you are not learning you are stale. I am working on heading through to graduate school and the sky is the limit and then some. I love learning and exploring beware of my Phase Two,” she added.
A talented singer, Charles has appeared on stage with Stevie Wonder and many others and worked with legendary producers like David Foster, Mike Stock and Pete Waterman.
She recently filmed an infomercial with “American Idol” judge Randy Jackson for Time Life selling 100th compilation CD’s of Motown that is now airing nationally.
A Lifetime in the Spotlight
Being in the spotlight is something Charles has done all of her life, spreading her wings as a child actor while growing up in a supportive home in New Jersey.
“I worked hard as a child actor and I performed at the early age of 5,” Charles said. “I performed in Atlantic City on the Boardwalk Tony Marts Talent, Lucy Russo The Stars of Tomorrow, churches, VFW’s halls and the Knights of Columbus.
“I was raised at St. James AME Church in Atlantic City with my grandmother and grandfather as my parents built of our home in Mays Landing. I spent first grades through fifth grades in Mays Landing and then lived with an aunt in Philadelphia and attended The Performing Arts School out of the College of Performing Arts,” she said.
Charles said her mother took her to New York City regularly, where she appeared “Sesame Street” and “Electric Company” and starred in many national commercials. She appeared in the movie “Hair” at 12 and sang on the soundtrack.
Miss America â€¦ It Was My Mother’s Idea
“Pageants were not in my radar,” Charles admitted at the time. “That was my mother’s idea as she grew up In Atlantic City and graduated from Atlantic City High School and lived during the Miss America glamour years.”
Charles was on full scholarship at Temple when she became first-runner up Miss America and immediately went on tour as the opening act of legendary soul artist Lou Rawls in Atlantic City, Las Vegas and overseas.
She international spotlight turned brighter as she opened for Joel Grey, Don Rickles, Alan King, Bill Cosby and Frank Sinatra as well. She also appeared in the ABC soap opera “Loving” as part of her contract.
Time to Save Miss America
By that time the Williams scandal broke, changing things at an even more break-neck pace.
“I was working and quite busy and had not gone back to Temple during that time,” Charles said. “The rest is history as they say and for six weeks I was named Miss America.”
Charles caught the attention of pageant watchers around the country â€“ and the pageant itself â€“ with a pointed op-ed piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer about the direction of the pageant under former Miss American and Fox News host Gretchen Carlson, someone she admitted she initially supported.
In August 2018, she joined a list of 11 former Miss Americas who asked for Carlson to resign as chair of the board of trustees because of the direction of the contest. Carlson resigned this June.
Charles told the Press of Atlantic City last January the Miss America Organization should be run as a business and had depended too much on the largesse of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, something the organization has denied.
“What troubles me most is the organization, through failed leadership over countless years, has not worked diligently to use its visibility and high profile to create many charitable events, nor has there been any viable attempts at fund-raising through marketing, merchandising, and solicitation,” Charles said in a January op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer, calling its currently relationship with Atlantic City “broken.”
But she added that the criticisms are out of love and believes the Miss America can be revived with fundraising and taking advantage of its star power with past winners while beefing up its scholarships to contestants.
She didn’t back off her criticism of the pageant with Front Runner New Jersey.com, saying that she felt “duped” after initially supporting Carlson to lead the organization.
“I am not in agreement to the current management at the Miss America organization,” Charles told FRNJ. “Unfortunately those of us former Miss Americas that had voted for the leader to take over was duped. If we had suspected that there would be such monumental changes we would have never voted for (Carlson).
“She has dismantled a historic organization just for selfish gain. I was taught to have a humble heart and kind spirit. And what you do you represent a higher being,” Charles continued.
Words of Advice from Miss America
Charles does have a word for those who may dream one day of becoming Miss America, or anything else in life as well.
“Everyone is given the same amount of hours every day. What you do with it is up to you,” Charles said. “People create a cure for cancer, become doctors, lawyers and parents. You have no excuse that someone has more time than you to accomplish more. Manage your time and get it all in.
“I write notes and have learned to account for my time. While driving, listen to a book, or learn about something on a podcast. Account for your time every day and before you know it, in the time that has passed and you have accomplished great things.
“It’s what you do every day that counts. Be kind to people and take time for people. You never know where someone will get a healing through you in some way. God will use you for his blessing to someone else. Show love and kindness and gratitude always,” she said.
In her “Phase Two,” Charles is wasting no time sharing her blessing with others.
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