MARQUETTE – Taylor Kulju is one busy young woman this summer.

In addition to preparing for opening night of the upcoming Peninsula Arts Appreciation Council’s production of “West Side Story” in which she appears in the lead role of Maria, Kulju is getting ready to hit an even bigger stage: the McMorran Entertainment Center in Port Huron where The Miss Michigan USA pageant will take place Sept. 13-14.

Ishpeming native Kulju has stepped into the title of Miss Upper Peninsula USA after Kaylyn Kutchie resigned from the post for personal reasons. Kulju was the first runner-up at the pageant in Marquette back in April.

“I also was Miss Congeniality, which was awesome,” the bubbly Kulju said of that first competition. “That meant the other girls liked me and that meant a lot.”

Now that she’s Miss Upper Peninsula USA, Kulju is prepping like crazy for the state pageant while at the same time rehearsing for “West Side Story” which opens at the Vista Theater in Negaunee on Aug. 15 – which just happens to be Kulju’s 21st birthday.

“I’m a theater major at Northern (Michigan University),” she said. “That’s my life. I love it.”

She has two platforms she’s promoting as part of her pageant involvement.

“The first is the importance of the arts in the education system. It breaks my heart when arts programs are cut. The arts molded me into who I am today,” Kulju said.

Encouraged by friends to enter the Miss Upper Peninsula USA pageant this past spring, Kulju found another platform through her participation.

“This was my first pageant. Before I got involved, I didn’t think I could fit in with the pageant stereotype,” she said. “But I found out those stereotypes are not true. You don’t have to be a size double zero, have a perfect complexion or have a Hollywood smile to compete. You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to be perfectly you.

“Be yourself and you’ll do fine,” she said. “That’s what I want to stress.”

Last weekend, Kulju received another taste of pageant life when she traveled Port Huron to take part in orientation for the state competition.

“That was inspiring,” she said. “I was genuinely shocked. The girls at the Miss U.P. pageant were all lovely, but that was on a smaller, hometown scale. Going into Miss Michigan, I thought it would be different. I found the girls were all stunning, which I expected, but they were all so professional, so polite and so so nice.

“Of course, I am going to the pageant to try to win, but I am going in for the incredible experience it will be. I am already making friends and that’s refreshing,” Kulju said. “I was so nervous but everyone has been wonderful.”

That includes her local support, too.

The daughter of Vikki and Don Kulju, Taylor Kulju is a graduate of Westwood High School and lists her younger brother, Ty, as her best friend.

“My family and my friends have been ridiculously supportive,” she said. “The community in general has been uplifting and so nice to me.”

Pageant coaches Jennifer Skogman-Warner and Crystal Hayes – a former Miss Michigan USA who hails from Rock – have been counseling Kulju to help her get ready for the state pageant.

“I am used to being on the stage and performing,” Kulju said. “But I am used to being on the stage playing a role. This is going to be me on a stage in a swimsuit. It will be me on a stage answering a political question.

“So I have been doing exercise and diet, of course, but I am also reading up on politics,” she said, adding with a smile, “That’s not something a 21-year-old girl in the theater world is up on all the time.”

To learn more about the state pageant, visit www.MissMichiganUSA.com.

Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253. Her email address is rprusi@miningjournal.net.