For The Madera Tribune
Madera’s Maria Manzo bounced back from a near-death experience to win the Miss Eco California pageant crown and will now compete for Miss Eco USA in February in Las Vegas.
To say 2018 was a roller coaster year for Maria Manzo is an understatement.
In March, Manzo was on her deathbed because of complications from an intestinal infection. However, her year turned around in December when she was appeared in an Educational Employees Credit Union commercial and won another beauty pageant title — Miss Eco California.
“It’s been a crazy past year,” she said. “I learned a lot from it. I felt like it has made me stronger as an individual. I feel like this is a second chance at life and do everything that I wanted. I want to take advantage of every single opportunity that I am given.”
Manzo was getting ready to compete in the Miss California pageant when she had to be admitted into the hospital.
“The weekend of the pageant was when I was hospitalized,” she said. “The night I came out of surgery, I was watching the pageant on my phone incredibly sad that I didn’t get a chance to compete.”
She had a bad intestinal infection that left her in the hospital for 10 days.
“I almost died in the hospital,” Manzo said. “I woke up in the middle of the night with the doctors bombarding me with resuscitation patches on my body. My heart dropped so low, they were surprised that I didn’t flatline. They still don’t know what caused it. They told me to take it easy when I feel my heartrate a little off. I had tubes protruding from my body for about seven months trying to drain the infections from my body.”
During her time recovering, Manzo received offers to do events, but couldn’t do them. She has been doing a lot of local commercials, acting and modeling gigs for the past six years, but took a break. However, her agent contacted her and told her she was a fit for the role and got the job for the EECU commercial.
Manzo is still not fully cleared and has to see the doctor each month to make sure of her health.
“The doctor is constantly reminding me I am one of the worse cases they have seen, especially since I am so young and healthy,” she said. “I don’t have many health issues to be on my deathbed. They said I am a scare. I’m a patient they’ve always feared. I’m happy, healthy, positive and just one day, I almost died for unknown reasons.”
Manzo appears in the most recent EECU commercial as the waitress giving the bill to a big party. Another member of the party then debates to pick up the check and that’s where the tagline of applying for an EECU credit card appears.
Although her time on camera is short, she said many people, especially on social media, have contacted her about seeing her on camera.
“Being from a small town like Madera, it’s a big deal for a lot of people,” she said. “As much joy as it brings me, I think it brings joy to other people. People are excited to see me. Not only from the experience I had, and now doing better, it gives them a sense of joy, hope and excited that somebody from the same town they’re from are doing something and on TV where they see their favorite actors and athletes and they me, a little Valley girl. I feel like since I’m from such a small town, everybody sees we’re a community and it’s a lot of excitement.”
Manzo said the commercial took a whole day to shoot at the Annex Kitchen in Fresno.
“There was a lot of people that came from a lot of states, as far as the actors go,” she said. “ Some of those actors, that’s what they do full time. It was really fun being on set with a fun group of comedians. They were all very comical. What you saw was pretty much their personalities. A lot of it, although they are actors, that’s who they were. It took a lot of takes to just get little pieces. That whole commercials is a bunch of pieces together. I think there will be more commercials with the similar idea, but different.”
Over the past year, Manzo was working to establish herself in her career. She started at a firm at the bottom and has worked her way up to an administrator.
“Now that I am established, I want to take on more opportunities,” she said. “I have been getting more opportunities as far as commercials or modeling for local companies.”
in addition to filming the commercial, Manzo said she wanted to feel like herself again after being hospitalized.
“I feel like this was something I need to do especially after I had my traumatizing experience,” she said. “I just wanted to go out and take advantage of every opportunity going forward. I wanted to feel like myself again because that experience tore me apart in every which way.”
Manzo was just hoping to do well in the Miss Eco pageant. However, she won the competition on Dec. 7 and will be competing in the Miss Eco United States Pageant in Las Vegas from Feb. 8-10.
“When I did win, it was a shock,” she said. “I do not lie. My hope out of it was to do well and encourage people. I feel like a lot of people, whether it is an illness or have something holding them back, people see what I do and overcome situations, people are encouraged by it. People are constantly wanting to know what I’m up to. I just didn’t want to leave that image in my own head, and others, that I fell really hard and I stayed there. I felt like I was always the overcomer and, as an athlete, competitive. I wanted to come out of that to show people there is a bright light out of dark tunnel. I wanted to show there is hope and you can overcome any situation or hurdle that is placed in front of you. That was exciting.”
In addition to working, training for a beauty pageant, Manzo is also training to participate in her first triathlon later this year.
“The national pageant has been much tougher to prepare for,” she said. “There’s still a lot of things I have to arrange like photo shoots in Las Vegas and Los Angeles to hiring a pageant coach and making the right moves and the right steps to making videos. I will be sharing a video soon about myself and my platform and what I would do with the Miss Eco United States title.
“I’m training for a triathlon because a big portion of these pageants are about lifestyle, being fit and active,” she said. “They are very positive environments being around. In the process of preparing for the pageant, I just figured I’m getting in shape, I’m active in the community, let’s the pageant in February and do the triathlon in April or May.”
The winner of the Miss Eco United States will then compete in the Miss Eco World in Egypt in May.
“They take the girls out and explore the desert and have the camel experience,” she said. “That’s exciting.”
Manzo said she still gets a kick about being a local celebrity and has met fans many places.
“I’ll be in random places and will freak out when they see me,” she said. “They know everything I have done. I feel like I could have them write my resume for me. I have been trying to be more social. I feel like a little Valley celebrity. It’s shocking.”
Manzo’s resume is pretty strong in the pageant field. She is the first Central Valley girl to participate, internationally, in one of the top five pageants in the world — Miss Grand International.
“I was the first girl in California to be able to do that,” she said. “I’m hoping to be the first California girl to win this pageant.”
She was also the first Central Valley woman to place in the top five in the Miss California pageant and the first in the top five in the Miss Earth United States pageant.
Previously, Manzo’s platform was the fight for water in the Central Valley. Although she says she will still be a part of that, her platform has changed because of a traumatic experience in her family.
“This year, I am focusing a lot on suicide prevention,” she said. “I’ve been very involved in the fight for water campaign and will still be involved in that. I want to gear it more to cleaning our oceans. Being in California, the coast is all along California. I feel that has been a big issue. I am going to work with cleaning the oceans. I’m going to set up a couple cleaning the ocean days.”
Manzo said her focus on suicide prevention stems from her sister, who was bullied in middle school and tried to take her life.
“I haven’t been too public about suicide prevention because it is still a little big fresh,” she said. “I’ve noticed, more recently, suicide has been a bigger issue. It has affected me and my family. We weren’t aware of it until she tried to commit suicide. That’s my focus now. I’m very blessed and thankful that she survived.
“There’s a lot of kids in the Valley in the past year, their parents didn’t have the opportunity to help their kids get better. We were. We are blessed with that second chance. We’re still fighting the battle. Because of situations like that, youths deal with depression, anxiety and mental health issues. It’s tough within itself. My work is going to gear towards the youth. The youths need better role models or things to do like athletics or arts. Something to keep their minds busy and have a lot of self-awareness to brace their individuality and their own special characteristics. I feel so many people, especially on social media, they see these people who are perfect. If you don’t feel those roles and categories, I feel the kids are so discouraged. I think they need to learn they are different and embrace that.”
Manzo said that her sister is overcoming and is hoping she will follow in her footsteps. Manzo’s sister will help her suicide prevention platform by appearing at a few events and speak about her experiences.
“She’s doing better and happy,” Manzo said. “She will be with me at my pageant in February. This will be her first. She wanted to go and I bought her and my mom’s flight and hotel so they can enjoy the pageant and experience. My litter sister really wants to be a part of it. She’s helping me put together my outfits. I’m hoping she may become a little beauty queen some day. She is very artistic. She can draw like I never have seen. She is amazing when it comes to electronics. She doesn’t need to be good at sports, the fact she is so intelligent in these ways is so special. Her artistic ability is insane. She’s like my little twin.”
“I have a good feeling about this year with a lot of opportunities,” Manzo said.