Taylor Lee is not exactly a typical beauty contestant candidate. Yes, the 24-year-old former model is tall, thin and attractive, but she’s also Black, gay and a computer geek who’s passionate about STEM.
The Montclair resident’s life has taken some surprising turns to bring her to her passion, which she has turned into a business that does grant-writing and STEM research for small businesses. It’s also the reason she’s competing in the Miss New Jersey contest next week, to be a role model for young people and preach the gospel of science, technology, engineering and math.
In the fall of 2015, just a couple of weeks into her senior year at Montclair High School, Lee was knocked over while standing on a lacrosse field during gym class by a 200-pound male classmate who was playing flag football on an adjacent field. She suffered a concussion, dislocated jaw and hip, and a back injury. She spent the rest of her senior year home-schooled, in and out of a wheelchair and spine specialists’ offices.
“It was completely devastating,” she said, adding that she missed many milestones, including taking the SAT. Though she’d been an A-student, after the accident, college was “not on my mind at all,” she said. “All I was planning on was getting my health back and how the heck to make it through senior year.”
Another deep disappointment was having to cancel an appointment to sign a modeling contract with Red Model Management. She’d been building her portfolio as a runway model at New York’s Fashion Week every year since 2012.
Then, her mother was forced to quit her job as an insurance agent to care for her daughter; medical bills started piling up, and “we were on the verge of being evicted from our apartment,” Lee said.
A silver lining turns into a passion
But her illness had a silver lining. Over the course of many trips to the CVS drug store near her Sherman Avenue home, she became friendly with a pharmacist named Mina Khouzam and began picking his brain for alternatives to her anti-inflammatory medicines.
She’d been losing weight (loss of appetite is a side effect of ibuprofen and naproxen) and her 5-foot-6-inch frame dwindled to 90 pounds.
One of his suggestions was turmeric, a spice, which she found “amazing” for inflammation.
Increasingly fascinated by pharmaceutical science, and bored at home, she asked Khouzam if there might be a position for her at the pharmacy. He spoke to his boss, and before she’d left the store she’d been hired as an assistant, on “light duty” so she could continue to heal.
“I was completely ecstatic,” she said. “The job helped me get more confidence and understand the medical and health care systems. It also taught me how I could use natural alternatives with the same benefit as drugs for better results and no side effects.”
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Carving out her own path
Around this time Lee met Cynthia Sweeney, a former director of environmental services at University Hospital and Beth Israel. Their mutual interest in research and science led to the creation of their company, Leswee, a combination of their last names. The two are soon to be life partners as well as business partners; they were engaged last September.
In a few months, Lee will receive her undergraduate degree in computer science with a concentration in cybersecurity engineering from Colorado Technical University, which she has been attending remotely since 2018. She chose cybersecurity after taking classes on Coursera to find out what STEM career is most critical. Despite challenging classes this year, such as computer algorithms and data-based structures, she earned all A’s and a spot on the president’s list.
Taking classes while running a business is “super hectic, but I love it,” she said.
She sees herself and Sweeney, who is Black and Puerto Rican, as important role models for young men and women, especially in the Black and Latina communities “Both our families were in science; my grandmother was a biologist but never promoted it or taught us how important it was or how fun it could be,” she said.
“Women only make up 25 percent of those in STEM. Members of the Black and LBGTQ communities are also underrepresented. I’m so happy to be one of them, and to push people in these communities to want to do more and pursue these careers,” she said.
Finding a platform for her message
She sees the Miss New Jersey contest as another, bigger platform to reach more people with her empowering message. At first, when contest details popped up on Instagram, she hesitated to apply. Years ago, she’d been overlooked for beauty contests, she believes, because of her color and her “huge” hair.
“My fiancée told me, ‘Be courageous, go for what you want,” she said.
So far, Lee has raised $1,601 for the contest; $4,795. remains for wardrobe and coaching, some of which, such as her gown and half the coaching fee, will be donated. Mayor Sean Spiller, councilors Peter Yacobellis and Bob Russo and Essex County Commissioner Brendan Gill have contributed and expressed a willingness to mentor her and help present educational proposals to the state. Donations can be made to her GoFundMe account.
At the three-day contest beginning on July 30 at the Parsippany Hilton, Lee will compete with about a hundred other finalists in bathing suit and evening gown contests, and have private interviews with judges.
“It’s not just about being a beautiful face,” she said. “If I win, it would have an impact on the Black and LBGTQ communities as well as show that you can make it through illness and poverty to positively impact the community.”
Julia Martin covers Montclair for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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