‘Miss Riverhead’ set to make first appearance

CARRIE MILLER PHOTO | Heather Riley (center ) with her parents Willie and Lori at Martha Clara Winery where they work.
CARRIE MILLER PHOTO | Heather Riley (center ) with her parents Willie and Lori at Martha Clara Winery where they work.

Riverhead High School graduate Heather Riley will be introduced this week as the first-ever Riverhead hamlet resident to compete in the Miss Long Island Pageant, now in its sixth year.

“We get over 350 applications a year,” said Lori Thomas, executive director of the Long Island Pageant System, which has run the Miss Long Island and Miss Long Island Teen pageants since 2008. Both pageants will take place Aug. 11. at the Patchogue Theater for Performing Arts.

“I only pick around 30 girls to compete” in the two contests, 15 for each, she said. “It’s pretty much the cream of the crop that actually make it to the stage.”

Katy Campbell of Wading River competed in the annual pageant last year.

Ms. Riley and the other contestents will be introduced Wednesday at Nocello restaurant in Northport.

This is Ms. Riley’s first pageant competition, but it won’t be her first step into the limelight. She’s been working as a model and actress since she was 15, she said. Most recently, she played one of Vince Vaughn’s children in the movie “The Delivery Man,” set to be released Oct. 4.

Working without the help of a talent agent, Ms. Riley is constantly going to auditions and posing in front of the camera, motivated by a desire to “make it,” she said. Modeling and acting are her main source of income.

“We are very supportive of her, of everything she does,” said her mother, Lori. “She does it all on her own. She’s very self motivated.”

One of four children, Ms. Riley grew up at Martha Clara Vineyards, where her father, Willie, is horse trainer and farm manager. Her mother is Martha Clara’s tasting room manager.

“We would go out and help him with the saddles,” the 5-foot-6 model said of growing up on a farm. “We would have to help clean the stalls and stuff like that,”

Ms. Riley’s star moments began at Riverhead High School, where she shone on the track. She was brought up to varsity level track and field in eighth grade and by junior year had captured the spring track pole-vault record at nine feet, said her former coach, Maria Dounelis.

“She was a great kid, a really coachable kid. Always positive,” Ms. Dounelis said. “It’s amazing watching her now.”

Ms. Riley graduated in 2008, receiving a partial athletic scholarship for track and field to the College of St. Rose in Albany. She graduated from St. Rose in May with a bachelor’s degree in public communication.

“I feel like Riverhead has definitely helped me get to where I am now because of the different experiences that I’ve gone thorough,” she said.

Some of those experiences include dealing with racism.

Ms. Riley is biracial and said she’s had differing experiences because of her background.

“The reason I wanted to be in the pageant was that I wanted to show girls my age that no matter your age, weight, color and background, you can do anything you put your mind to,” she said. “I want to tell my story.”

“She’s definitely the type of girl we are looking for,” said Ms. Thomas. “I think what’s really wonderful about her is she is very passionate. She was very honest, very sincere. At age 22 it is really wonderful to see someone that well-rounded.”

Although there are two cities and 13 towns in Nassau and Suffolk counties, pageant participants are not chosen according to where they live. There are no other contestants representing Riverhead Town, Ms. Thomas said.

For her pageant platform, Ms. Riley has decided to support Strength for Life, a Port Jefferson Station not-for-profit that works to help cancer patients enhance their recovery process through exercise. The group also works to educate the general public about the benefits of exercise.

“We’re working getting her to our exercise classes and to our next exercise retreat,” said Jacqueline Errico, executive director and co-founder of Strength for Life. “We’re very excited about it. We’re always happy someone is willing to help us. It can help us get our message out.”

“My biggest passion is fitness,” said Ms. Riley. “I have also had family members that have passed from cancer.” She lost her grandmother and a cousin to cancer, she said, noting that neither was very physically active.

A win for Ms. Riley could be a win for Riverhead Town, Lori Riley said.

“It will bring more publicity for downtown,” she said. “To let people know it’s moving and shaking out here.”

“If she wins it’s not necessarily good for just Riverhead, it’s good for Long Island,” said Ms. Thomas. She’d be representing the three million people that live here.”

If Ms. Riley were to win, she would advance to the Miss New York USA pageant, receiving professional coaching by Ms. Thomas, who holds five pageant titles herself.

Ms. Riley said she’s looking for support from the community to help her finance her pageant participation and raise money for Strength For Life.

“Typically local businesses get behind the local delegate, really anyone who is looking to help someone participate,” said Ms. Thomas. “Everyone gets advertised in the program book. Whether it’s a corporation or a person from the community.”

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