By Stephen Witt
The young ladies looked dazzling in swimsuits, strutted elegantly in evening wear and showcased quick-thinking wit and talent. When it was all over, Lee-Taylor Smith, 22, who lives in Manhattan by way of Virginia, was crowned the first Miss Brooklyn in 16 years last Saturday at Long Island University’s Kumble Theatre. “This is fantastic. I’m very excited. This is a great way to kind of kick my new year off here in Brooklyn,” said an ecstatic Smith, with the jewel-encrusted Brooklyn crown placed gently atop her head and looking stunning in a cream-colored strapless gown. Smith, who wants to go into interior design, said she just moved to the area, but has already been to Coney Island for hot dogs at Nathan’s and to Junior’s Restaurant for some cheesecake. “I also started going to church at the Brooklyn Tabernacle on Smith Street,” said Smith, adding that she looks forward to getting to know Brooklyn even better as she will now be in demand at borough events. In winning the Miss Brooklyn 2008 title, Smith receives a $1,000 scholarship to spend how she wants, and goes on to compete for Miss New York State 2008 in Dix Hills on July 19. While the seven women, aged 21 to 24, competing for the crown were all vying to represent Brooklyn, only three – Julya Vekstein (Park Slope), Carlon Alexandra (Brooklyn Heights) and Nicole Clarke (East Flatbush) – currently live in the borough. “I love Brooklyn,” said Vekstein. “I grew up in the suburbs and Park Slope is a combination of residential and urban living. It’s much more quaint than Manhattan, where I work.” Vekstein said her favorite thing to do in the borough is go to Prospect Park where she enjoys the boat rides, jogging and playing soccer on Saturday mornings with friends. Vekstein also reflects a good portion of the immigrant pattern of the borough as her parents immigrated to the United States from the former Soviet Union. She said about half her family lives in the borough. The last Miss Brooklyn was Marisol Montalvo, who actually lived on Long Island, and captured the crown in 1991. Montalvo went on to become Miss New York State, and was first runner-up in the Miss America Pageant in 1992. However, the pageant lost steam when the woman who ran it voluntarily for years had to step down when she got a new job. Kimberly Thomas, the pageant's new executive director, took up the ball last year and revived the Miss Brooklyn pageant. Thomas has been running pageants since 2000. Thomas, who also lives on Long Island, figured that the borough — teeming with colleges — was ripe to revive the pageant. However, after only 30 young women applied last year and only two followed through, Thomas opened up the contest to women from throughout the five boroughs. “We started recruiting already for next year’s pageant and if we don’t have enough [Brooklyn] girls by December, we’ll open it up to all the boroughs again next year,” she said. Clark, a Cornell University graduate and the only Brooklyn-born entry, said it was her first beauty pageant and she decided to enter after she found out the contest was community service oriented. Clark said that if she won, she planned on using some of the prize money for graduate school and also giving part of it to the Brownsville Multi-Service Family Health Center. “I’m glad I participated and think it has a lot of potential to go onto something really big,” said Clark. The pageant was actually two contests in one as three teenagers also participated in the Miss Brooklyn Teen Pageant, in which KeyAna Williams, 13, an East Flatbush eighth-grader, won. “It’s very exciting. She is a beauty,” said Cheryl Williams, KeyAna’s mother. “It’s something positive for her to really feel good about herself. I also think has the potential to be a great role model. I really want other kids to see that she can go out and do this, because I want here to give other kids confidence as well,” she added. For more information on the contest, log onto www.brooklynqueens.org.