The talent pool in New Jersey runs deep.
By Gerry Strauss
Bruce. Shaq. Meryl. Brooke. Frank. Can any other state match New Jersey’s output of celebrities for whom “one name” says it all? More than anything, it’s a reﬂection of the talent pool this state produces year in and year out. There’s a little alchemy in play here—what propels young New Jerseyans toward the stratosphere is a curious combination of attitude, style and competitive spirit…and probably proximity to New York. The brass ring, as they say, is right there for the grabbing.
Who might be the Garden State’s next claim to fame? That, of course, is anyone’s guess. I checked in with ﬁve up-and-comers with New Jersey roots to understand a little better where they’ve come from…and how far they’re likely to go.
Five years before you blew people away on national television, you were a bona ﬁde YouTube sensation. How did that go down?
It was never a planned thing. It wasn’t even something that I thought could ever blow up, because at the time I had no idea that YouTube had that kind of power. I was trying to make people happy by doing their requests. Someone would be like, “Oh, sing ‘Single Ladies’ by Beyoncé” and I’d just go ahead and do it.
What did your high ﬁnish on The Voice in 2014 do for your career?
I feel like people didn’t take me as seriously when I was just the “YouTube girl.” The Voice took me to a different level. As an artist and a performer, I learned so much. You get thrown on stage singing for a bunch of stars on national television, and you have to adapt and force yourself to learn how to perform under those conditions.
Where do you see your career headed from here?
I want to inspire people with a unique sound. I want to inspire people with my voice. I want to keep getting out music for people that want music from me. My life’s plan is really just to keep making music, no matter what.
Did You Know?
Christina, a native of Marlton, ﬁnished third on Season 6 of The Voice. In the live ﬁnale, she performed a duet with Adam Levine and sang the Elvis Presley hit “Can’t Help Falling In Love.”
Where did you ﬁrst develop your sense of style?
I think it began from playing in my mom’s closet and reading her fashion magazines after she was done with them. I would borrow her clothes a lot…and sometimes never return them.
What were you like as a kid growing up in Manalapan?
I was a big, dorky homebody as a child. My backyard was a forest. Directly across the street was a big farm. If I wasn’t at school or with the drama club, I was at home with my nose in a book.
It was quite a leap from there to winning the Miss USA pageant in 2011.
Shortly after the crown was placed on my head and I started to walk the runway, my ﬁrst thought was, “Everything is about to change.”
What was the most dramatic change?
I got to travel the world—to Brazil, the Bahamas, Canada, Monaco, France, and Germany. But I also changed a little after every charity appearance. For instance, I learned a lot about my own body while working for a few breast cancer awareness organizations.
Your fashion blog, the-A-List-blog.com has become a hit. What does it take to make that happen every day?
On the days that I am home, I wake up early and have breakfast before sitting at my desk to respond to emails. I then get dressed and begin to work on my next blog post, making sure all the links connect to the right web sites and all the images are clear and aligned properly. Sometimes, I’ll know right away what I want to talk about in my blog post. There are also days where I really have to think about what I want to say. Lunchtime is usually meeting time, since I always feel everyone is happier if there’s food. In the evenings, I tend to browse online for new trends and new products.
Did You Know?
Alyssa was the ﬁrst runner-up in the 2007 Miss Teen USA pageant. The third runner-up, Caite Upton, earned everlasting fame for her rambling explanation of why one in ﬁve Americans couldn’t ﬁnd their own country on a world map.
Your work has a timeless quality to it. Do you consider yourself an old soul?
I don’t know if I’d call myself an old soul, necessarily, but I do sometimes ﬁnd myself feeling like I was born a couple decades too late. I love music that existed before I did.
Where did you develop a love for cabaret performing?
I grew up in Morris County and was very close with a woman named Patty Montano. Patty taught cabaret classes for high school kids—which I took—and also for younger kids, whom I accompanied on piano. We had showcases at Don’t Tell Mama in New York, and that was my ﬁrst experience singing in a club. I learned a ton from Patty, who passed in 2005. I still think of her whenever I step onto a cabaret stage.
You were a Music Theater major at Westminster Choir College in Princeton. What’s the most important thing you learned there?
A respect for the music on the page. An actor respects the punctuation a playwright puts into the text because the playwright obviously made decisions about where to put it for a reason. Music is the same way. Every detail is a little gift from the songwriter to the performer, and should be honored.
Do you feel this area offered the opportunities you needed to grow as a performer?
Deﬁnitely! My family moved from central Connecticut when I was 12. I often think how different my life and career would have been if we’d stayed there. The resources I had access to as a teenager and young adult living within an hour of New York City were invaluable. I’m deﬁnitely one of the lucky ones for living here.
Did You Know?
Stearns won Best Male Vocalist at the 2015 Manhattan Association of Cabarets & Clubs (aka MAC) Awards. If you buy his critically acclaimed CD Spark from stearnsmatthews.com, mention EDGE and he’ll sign it for you.
The Jersey Devil
How did you get involved in Mixed Martial Arts?
I was a lifelong athlete, playing everything from lacrosse, basketball, track and soccer until my sophomore year at Seneca High School in Tabernacle. I decided to be more social and take some time off. Boy, was that a mistake! I missed being competitive and knew I had to ﬁnd something to ﬁll that void. I walked into a gym called Liberty Boxing and said, “I want to be an MMA ﬁghter.” From that day on I knew what I wanted to do with my life.
What do people in your sport say when they ﬁnd out you’re from Jersey?
They hear New Jersey and they think “city.” Well, I grew up in the beautiful Pine Barrens of South Jersey. My weekends consisted of riding my quad, going mudding in the woods, or just hanging out by a bonﬁre with my friends and family enjoying the outdoors. It was simple living, really.
You’ve fought inside the MMA cage, hosted TV shows, and are now pursuing a career with World Wrestling Entertainment. Is it challenging to juggle so many career paths?
I do wear a couple of hats. But in a strange way, they are very similar. They revolve around my love for entertaining people and competing. The day of my high school graduation I packed my car up and drove to Florida to continue my MMA training. Then I moved back to the northeast, produced a couple movies, and ﬁnally set my eyes on L.A.—which is where I began hosting my UFC Afterbuzz show. Acting and TV production were always interests of mine. I was always the class clown, always the one trying to make people laugh or do something crazy. So hosting came pretty naturally to me and it’s deﬁnitely something I love doing.
What is your ultimate goal?
Just to live it with no boundaries, no restrictions. I’m one of those people who truly believes anything is possible. Whether I’m ﬁghting MMA, performing in the WWE, or hosting a TV show, I don’t believe there is a way you can ever “do it all.”
Did You Know?
Daria is the ﬁrst openly gay female wrestler. She came out during the 2015 WWE Tough Enough reality competition.
Chloe By Design Author
What appeals to you most about the Chloe character you created?
I’m not much of a fashionista, so I really welcomed the opportunity to learn about something new. What’s unique about the Chloe series is that the reader not only gets a story about a girl competing in a Project Runway-type contest, but they also see exactly what Chloe is sketching, thanks to the illustrations by Brooke Hagel.
Did growing up in Bergen County inﬂuence your writing?
Bergen County is known for its malls. As a kid, I loved walking through Garden State Plaza and people-watching. In the ﬁrst and third Chloe books, I have Chloe in the mall, scoping out styles with her best friend. In my young adult novels, the characters always go to the mall, too. That’s my little tribute to New Jersey.
What ideas do you try convey to your middle-grades readers through Chloe?
What I love about her is that she has some conﬁdence issues, but manages to persevere and follow her dreams. I hope this book empowers young girls to overcome obstacles and go after what they want.
Did You Know?
Margaret was born in Belarus and moved to New Jersey from Brooklyn at age 8. The third book in the Chloe series will be published in September.
Editor’s Note: Gerry Strauss actually planned to check in with six homegrown New Jersey up-and-comers. Unfortunately (for Gerry, that is) one of them—Charlie Puth—“blew up” in 2015 while he was working on this story.