HARLEM — When Danielle Summons, who placed in the top 20 in this year’s Miss New York pageant, told her friends she was in the running to be Miss Harlem Shake, they didn’t know what to think.
“Everyone thought I was in a dance competition,” the 24-year-old said.
But the aim of the contest is to showcase some of the people who make Harlem unique. It was inspired in part by the Miss Subway ads that ran in the city’s trains from 1941 to 1976, said Jelena Pasic, owner of the Harlem Shake restaurant.
“It’s not a beauty contest. It is a personality contest,” Pasic said.
Summons was one of more than 50 women to enter the Miss Harlem Shake contest. The finalists include a PhD candidate, a tax accountant, a counselor at a methadone treatment program, writers and advocates. They range in age from 19 to 51. Some have lived in Harlem their whole lives and others for just a couple of years.
Whoever is crowned Miss Harlem Shake will get free burgers for a year, $500 and $1,000 to a charity of their choice.
For Summons that’s Harlem School of the Arts, which provides affordable high quality arts programs in the neighborhood.
“It’s just like programs I used to be involved with as a child,” said Summons, who recently began volunteering there.
Each contestant entered for her own reasons. Some thought it would be fun, some wanted to represent their neighborhood and others — like Liz Jackson — wanted to make a point.
Jackson, 32, lives on 122th Street and Lenox Avenue. She crosses Atlah Worldwide Church — known for their homophobic messages — to get to the subway every day.
“How wonderful would it be if an out and proud lesbian who has been in a committed relationship for nine years was Miss Harlem Shake?” she said.
Jackson is often seen riding her bike around Harlem or walking down the street with her purple cane. Since being diagnosed with a neurological disorder she has become an advocate, trying to make assisted living devices — like canes — more mainstream.
One of her main projects is to get retailers to sell canes. If they can sell assisted living devices like glasses, why not canes, she said.
Jackson’s charity is Harlem RBI, which provides children with educational and athletic opportunities. Those who have gone through the program boast a 100 percent high school graduation rate, according to their annual report.
Customers can vote for Miss Harlem Shake at ballots in the restaurant. A board with each finalists’ picture on it and the number of how many votes they’ve received is updated daily.
The five women who receive the most votes will continue on to the final ceremony Sept. 13.
Miss Harlem Shake will be picked by an 8-judge panel that include Tony nominated Broadway actress Brenda Braxton, celebrity makeup artist Cydne Watson and choreographer Manwe, who has worked with Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga and Destiny’s Child.
Contestants will have to answer a series of questions, including: "Why do you think you deserve to be Miss Harlem Shake?"