Ruling the runway

Bensalem 5-year-old Gabriella Kenny is heading to the East Coast USA Pageant National Finals

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

Small wonder: Bensalem resident Gabriella Kenny, 5, earned the title of Tiny Miss Pennsylvania in the state East Coast USA Pageant. Now, she’s preparing for the National Finals, which will take place July 27–29 in Parsippany, New Jersey. Source: Debbie Kenny

There’s a good chance Miss America could one day hail from our very own Bensalem. We just have to wait about 20 years to find out.

Last month, 5-year-old Bensalem resident Gabriella (Ella) Kenny earned the coveted title of Tiny Miss Pennsylvania in the state East Coast USA Pageant. Now, she and her mom, Debbie, are polishing up runway skills and putting finishing touches on her gown in preparation for the National Finals, which will take place July 27–29, in Parsippany, New Jersey.

Held at the Sheraton Bucks County Hotel in Langhorne, the state pageant welcomed contestants under 28-years old-who competed in 13 age divisions ranging from “Wee Baby Miss” to “Miss.” Gabriella, who was placed in the “Tiny Miss” category, was up against the tough competition of a dozen other 5 year olds who traveled from as far as Harrisburg to vye for the same crown. But with her glittering pink dress and winning smile, she came out victorious, landing a spot in the National Finals for the first time in her young life.

This year marks Gabriella’s second time competing at the state level. During 2017’s event, she earned first runner up, an impressive feat for her first dive into the pageant world. Going into 2018, she and Debbie didn’t want to raise their hopes too high — as long as Gabriella had fun, that’s all that mattered.

But as the judges began announcing which contestants were the third, second and first runners up, Gabriella’s name had yet to be called. This meant she either didn’t place at all, or would soon be named Tiny Miss Pennsylvania. After her stellar performance on the runway, there was simply no way it could be the former.

Moments later, a crown almost as large as Gabriella’s head was carefully placed upon her as Debbie and the rest of the Kenny family cheered with pride from the audience.

“She was so excited,” Debbie said of her daughter’s winning moment.

Judging was based on stage presence personality during the runway competition, facial beauty during the photogenic competition, and overall appeal during a group line up of each age division.

Unlike the overly-pampered children on TLC’s Toddlers and Tiaras, East Coast USA contestants under 11-years-old aren’t permitted to wear any makeup except clear lip gloss and clear mascara. According to the pageant’s online guidelines, they are not allowed to use “false tanning, eyelashes, flippers, falls, wiglets or hair pieces” when competing. Though this may sound strict to some, Debbie said her daughter loves every minute of the hectic yet oh-so rewarding experience.

So how did her passion for pageants begin? According to Debbie, it all started with her niece Emily Turner, a resident of Ivyland, who suggested Gabriella give the competition a shot. Turner’s 2-year old daughter Jocelyn (who earned the title of Miss Congeniality at states this year), had previously competed and she knew Gabriella would shine in the environment. Clearly, she was right.

“The pageant has really helped her build her confidence,” Debbie said. “It’s hard to be onstage.”

Though the interests of children so often change on a whim, Debbie is positive her daughter will continue to compete in pageants for years to come. But until she’s old enough to qualify for Miss America, Gabriella must tackle the National Finals looming ahead.

Since the competition does cost a pretty penny to enter, the mother-daughter duo are seeking sponsors. Businesses and residents interested in advertising while helping to support Gabriella are welcome to purchase a space in the book that’s distributed to the thousands of attendees. Cost is $35 for a quarter page, $50 for a half page and $100 for a full page. According to Debbie, this is great for both large and small businesses, especially those specializing in makeup and jewelry. Those looking to include a simple good luck message are able to do so as well. ••

If you go…

The 18th annual East Coast USA Pageant National Finals, hosted by Tim Whitmer, will take place July 27–29, at Hilton Parsippany, One Hilton Court, Parsippany, New Jersey.

For more information, visit

To sponsor Gabriella, visit

Samantha Bambino can be reached at