An Interview with Jenna Drew: Miss NJ International and Fellow Celiac Advocate

jenna drew celiac advocate

The Miss International 2013 competition begins today in Chicago.

Why is this news? Because Jenna Drew is competing as Ms. New Jersey. And each contestant has the opportunity to select a platform of her choice that she spends the year promoting.

Ok…again…why is this news? Because Jenna Drew is a fellow celiac and a phenomenal advocate and her platform of choice is celiac disease.

How cool is that!

Ladies and gentlemen, Ms. Jenna Drew…

GD: I’ll start things off with a total non-celiac question…and please do not take this the wrong way. I think beauty pageants can send a bad message; that a woman’s looks are more important than anything else. Yes, they entail interviews, talent segments, etc, but at the end of the day, you need to be beautiful to be in the big pageants. The idea just seems so…outdated to me. Why am I wrong about this?

miss new jerseyJD: There are many stereotypes in the world. Unfortunately pageantry has a stereotype which is often set by those who have never competed in a pageant or have never really had a conversation with a ‘pageant’ girl. No, they have only watched a reality show or placed judgment on a group of young women before really getting to know them.

Gaining confidence, poise and the ability to thrive under pressure are a few ways pageantry has helped me grow as a person. When I am interviewing for a tough position, I remember the feeling of answering a question in front of an auditorium full of people. In the Miss International pageant system, interview is 40% of our total score. The International system also requires each contestant to choose a personal platform for her reign. This only has opened so many opportunities and connections in the Celiac and Gluten Free communities.

It may be hard to understand on the outside, but trust me…I can’t imagine a more fulfilling moment than when I was speaking to a father about his young daughter and her struggle to ‘fit in’ at school with Celiac Disease then being able to spend some time speaking with her about her favorite gluten free foods and seeing her face light up. It’s moments like that will last with me long after I end my reign.

GD: Tell me about your journey from Jenna the person to Jenna Miss NJ International?

JD: This is a journey that started seven years ago when my mom was diagnosed with Celiac Disease in 2007. Shortly after, I was also diagnosed with Celiac Disease. I’ve always been a proactive person and noticed there weren’t many opportunities to raise funds and participate in events promoting Celiac Disease Awareness back then. That’s when I reached out to the National Foundation of Celiac Awareness about volunteering and having my own fundraiser to support their mission. I also found out about the Miss International pageant system about the same time. After years of support and fundraising, I’m so proud that I have such a wonderful organization to stand behind me as I advocate for Celiac Awareness.

The term ‘gluten free’ has really exploded over the past 5 years, but the knowledge behind what it actually means hasn’t quite kept up. As I journey to Chicago to compete for Miss International, this is my goal. To create awareness for Celiac Disease and to educate others about what it truly means when you see gluten free on a label.

jenna-drew-miss-njGD: I’ll ask the same question that I asked Shannon Ford (Mrs. United States). I’m always amazed at how well the runner-ups react to not winning. If you were announced as first runner-up instead of the winner, did you have a fake happy reaction well-rehearsed?

JD: Fortunately, I was announced as Miss New Jersey International and definitely didn’t contain my excitement. Here’s a snapshot of my reaction (pic to the right).

GD: Ok…on to more important topics. Tell us about your celiac journey. Did you have health issues growing up? What made you go the doctor? How long did it take to get diagnosed?

JD: While I was growing up, my family always made a giant dish of lasagna on Christmas Eve, and I would wake up Christmas morning sicker than I’ve ever been. After being active in athletics throughout high school and college, I was diagnosed with asthma my junior year of college. Looking back, these two issues should have been an early warning that gluten caused me health issues. My mother was actually the first diagnosed with Celiac Disease in my family in 2007.

Since Celiac Disease is hereditary, I had a gene panel done and found I had the gene but was in denial about my symptoms. It was in 2009 that I quickly became ill and diagnosed with Celiac Disease. Looking back I can see that my chronic bronchitis (which I haven’t had since I’ve been gluten free) as well as my asthma and severe migraines were definitely key signs. Since I already knew Celiac Disease ran in my family and that I had the gene, my diagnosis was not like the typical struggle most people go through to be diagnosed.

GD: Once you were diagnosed, how was the adjustment period? Did you go thru any of stages of mourning, anger, bitterness, etc?

gluten free jennaJD: I had just moved to NYC on my own and was living on a ramen-noodle-for-every-meal grocery budget. Switching to a gluten free diet caused a lot of financial struggle with the high cost of living and low starting salary New York City offers. Food is typically the center of every celebrating and friendly get-together. While I was learning to live on a gluten free diet, there were definitely nights that I cried from the frustrating of feeling left out or feel like there was absolutely nothing that I could eat.

Other nights I was overjoyed by living in NYC – what I call the mecca of gluten free with a variety of restaurants and bakeries offering safe gluten free options. Living with Celiac Disease is a daily struggle, especially when you’re first starting out. The moment when I realized that it’s a complete lifestyle was the moment I came to embrace living with Celiac Disease.

GD: Thank you for making Celiac Awareness your platform of choice. What made you choose this as your platform?

jenna-kidsJD: I’ve personally seen the struggles of getting diagnosed with Celiac Disease and the almost instant change it can make on a person through my mom’s journey. I was one of the few lucky ones that didn’t have a 6 – 10 year time span before I was properly diagnosed. The opportunity to help increase awareness among the general population as well as with medical professionals was an easy choice. If there’s just one person that I can help gain a Celiac Disease diagnosis that has been struggling with his/her health for years through education and awareness, then my whole year as Miss New Jersey International will be a success.

GD: What specifically do you plan to do to raise awareness?

JD: Throughout my year as Miss New Jersey International, I will:

  • Partner with the National Foundation of Celiac Awareness raising funds and providing support for individuals diagnosed with Celiac Disease.
  • Educate family care providers about Celiac Disease and the health problems caused by a misdiagnosis or undiagnosis which occurs 95% of the time with Celiac Disease.
  • Work with national restaurant chains and educate them on the importance of training their staff in safely serving patrons with food related health issues including gluten free food related health issues including gluten free food service training.

GD: What has surprised you the most as you are out there raising awareness?

miss new jerseyJD: I’ve come across several people that think ‘Oh, just a little bit of gluten won’t hurt you’ because they’ve met other Celiacs that are very lenient on their gluten intake which has led to being ‘glutened’ quite a few times. The knowledge that just a tiny little crumb can cripple someone with Celiac needs to be known. Even while in pain, I’ve try to take opportunities like this to really educate others about cross-contact and encourage your readers to do the same.

GD: What has been the most disappointing?

JD: That I haven’t been able to attend every Celiac Disease awareness event!

GD: Gluten-free has gained the reputation of being a fad diet. Some celiacs think this is a good thing as it means more options and more awareness. Some, like myself, think just the opposite; that it doesn’t draw attention to our disease, but to the food itself, much of which is unhealthy. Where do you stand?

miss-nj-celiacJD: The term gluten free has definitely become a buzz word in our society. You see it everywhere from restaurant menus to celeb diet plans. I think it’s fantastic that the word gluten free has caught on and is gaining international attention. BUT, I’m very disappointed that the education behind what it means to be gluten free isn’t catching up to it, and the fact that it’s not a diet choice for many of us – it’s a total lifestyle change. It’s not my prerogative to judge someone as to ‘why’ they are eating gluten free; however, if it is to simply be ‘healthier’ than I would definitely point out that a cupcake is a cupcake – even if it’s gluten free. Don’t get me wrong, I indulge in gluten free goodies every once in a while. 🙂

GD: You are told you MUST eat one meal with gluten and it will not affect your health at all. I know…just humor me. What do you eat?

JD: If only this were true! I would definitely just make a whole meal out of cheesesticks.

GD: I assume you are on the run a lot. What is your favorite go-to gluten free snack?

JD: My favorite gluten free snack is KIND Nut Delight bars! Not only are they gluten free but they contain valuable nutrients like fiber, protein and iron.

GD: Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

JD: In 10 years, I see myself continuing to be an advocate for Celiac Disease Awareness, creating my own non-profit to help children diagnosed with Celiac Disease, and finally using my M.B.A. at a marketing firm in New York City.

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My thanks to Jenna for her time and more importantly for getting out there and doing the dirty work raising celiac awareness. You can check out Jenna via the following:

Web: http://www.glutenfreejenna.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jennamdrew
Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/gfjenna

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3 thoughts on “An Interview with Jenna Drew: Miss NJ International and Fellow Celiac Advocate”

  1. Jenna,
    When you said: “If there’s just one person that I can help gain a Celiac Disease diagnosis that has been struggling with his/her health for years through education and awareness, then my whole year as Miss New Jersey International will be a success.”…
    I admit it, I teared up a bit and now, I am smiling. 🙂 Well said!

    Kudos to you– for being an advocate and for doing all you can to create awareness. Best wishes to you!!

  2. Diane Humphrey

    Thank you for taking time to talk to someone like that little girl. I know you will be able to help others in the same way.

  3. let’s see… she’s smart, beautiful, raising celiac awareness AND from NJ. talk about a winning combination!

    great interview – thanks Jenna, thanks GD. =)

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Who I am. And who I'm not.

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I AM someone who's been gluten-free since 2007 due to a diagnosis of severe celiac disease. I'm someone who can steer you in the right direction when it comes to going gluten-free. And I'm someone who will always give you the naked truth about going gluten free.

I AM NOT someone who embraces this gluten-free craziness. I didn’t find freedom, a better life or any of that other crap when I got diagnosed. With all due respect to Hunter S. Thompson, I found fear and loathing of an unknown world. But if I can share my wisdom, tell my stories and make the transition easier on you, I’ve done my job.

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