October 24, 2016
Something as simple as posting a selfie taken at an Eagles tailgate can change your whole life.
That’s what Wildwood Crest’s Veronica Harwood learned courtesy of an Instagram photo last season.
Sporting a short-sleeved Eagles shirt and holding a bottle of Sam Adams on an unseasonably warm December day, the 25-year-old fitness enthusiast smiled for a photo with her #bestie.
Before long, a comment from “shayyybaebae” appeared: “Hey I want you to audition for a show I'm casting!”
“You really have to be grounded if you want to find love or a relationship on reality TV because it’s different and it’s stressful.” — Veronica Harwood
Two months removed from being named a semifinalist in the Miss New Jersey USA pageant, Harwood had to think about it.
“I wasn’t in a rush to do it,” she said of filling out the litany of forms the casting agent sent.
Eventually, she submitted an application and — after phone, FaceTime and in-person interviews — Harwood landed a role as one of 50 women vying for the attention of Travis Kelce, an NFL tight end whose brother Jason plays for the Eagles.
Filmed earlier this year at a Los Angeles mansion, the series airs Wednesday nights on the E! network. While Harwood couldn’t talk specifically about what viewers will see in the remaining episodes (nor can Travis Kelce himself), she’s one of the last nine suitresses left.
Two days before she hosts a viewing party at Adelphia Restaurant in Deptford, New Jersey, PhillyVoice caught up with her on Monday to talk about the path that brought her to the show and any lessons learned about being in a level of public glare that, until recently, remained a foreign concept.
A Cape May County native, Harwood started “competition cheerleading” when she was 8 or 9 years old. So, yes, the old "cheerleader dates star football player" cliche isn't a difficult leap to make, but there's much more to this story.
After graduating from Lower Cape May Regional High School, she went to culinary school and worked as a sauté chef, head baker and pastry chef in Wildwood and Cape May.
“I worked at a Dairy Queen on the boardwalk for 12 years and thought I would buy it from them and do something like that,” she said of teenage jobs and professional aspirations. “I always wanted to have my own restaurant, my own business, because I don’t want to work for someone else. Even if I’m not cooking, I want to have my own bistro one day. I’m still making birthday, wedding cakes out of my house on the side.”
That has yet to pan out, so she tried her hand at bartending this summer in Cape May. Seeing a Facebook post about the pageant led her in a direction that opened her eyes to the kind of life you don’t see when you’re born, raised and remain in a Jersey Shore resort town for your entire life.
Considering that she didn’t go away to college, moving into a house with dozens of other women for the “Chasing Kelce” show was another new wrinkle to life.
“I knew it was a dating show, but they didn’t release the name of who it was until a day or two before I left,” she recounted over coffee at a Washington Square café on Monday afternoon.
“It ended up being Travis Kelce. I didn’t know who he was. I knew Jason played for the Eagles,” she continued, of the star’s brother, who was on set at various points throughout the six weeks of shooting, wearing America-themed sweats in last week’s episode that featured a game of two-hand touch football. “I looked him up, of course, [and thought] ‘Oh, he’s handsome.’ I did a little Facebook and Instagram stalking. ‘OK, he seems like a nice guy, into his family, does a lot of charity.’”
As for why she’s seeking a relationship now, she cited the locals’ environment of seeing the same people all the time when you live down the shore year-round. Following a three-year relationship, she’s been single for more than a year now but still shares dog-custody with an ex who couldn’t figure out why she’d go on the type of show she rarely watches.
“I always had a feeling that there’s something more for me, that something’s pulling me out of my county,” said the born-and-raised Eagles fan who tailgates often and tries to go into a couple games a season. “Why wouldn’t I take the chance? I always said I wanted to go and do this or that.”
From there, it was on to filming. Fifty contestants — each representing a state — were quickly whittled down to 20. Then, it was down to 12 and, as it currently stands, nine.
Careful not to offer any spoilers, she said seeing episodes that have already aired left her wondering, “Why would you say that?” of other contestants.
While there is an element of “jersey chasers” who worked their way onto the show with the expressed intention of dating an athlete, Harwood said that’s not her modus operandi.
“[People working on the show] said to me that ‘you never mention what your life is going to be after this,’ because I guess some of the girls knew they were going to get something from it,” she said. “And I’m like, ‘I don’t think like that.’ I was there to meet Travis and get to know him. I don’t live in L.A. I don’t want to be this famous star. I just wanted to go and give this a chance.”
Since the pageant, she’s pursued modeling opportunities and wants to put a book together about fitness and fashion. That played into her wheelhouse when she was selected for a group date on the show that involved shooting a fitness commercial.
When she got a solo date with Travis Kelce later in that episode, she showed him pictures of her dog.
“Even watching it now, it feels good that he saw something in you,” she said. “The first episode, he said I was gorgeous. The second episode, when we went on our date, he said that I kind of hide that I’m so pretty. It’s not that I hide it. It’s more that I’m not the girl that, when we’re going to a charity event, and I’m going to have my [breasts] out. That’s where, maybe some of the other girls were, like, ‘Heyyyy, look at me.’
"I know there’s a time for that. I don’t need to show all this skin. That’s not me and I’m not going to go on TV being someone I’m not. To me, a long dress is sexy. I don’t need everybody in the room to stare at me as long as that one person in the room is.”
She learned on the fly to deal with the strangeness of dating in front of the cameras.
“It was definitely nerve-wracking. The first few days, I felt like I wasn’t myself,” said Harwood, who was chided for her “water” pronunciation on a show where she’s branded a fast talker. “Then I got back to myself, ‘You need to relax. You’re here for one reason and if you act like someone you’re not, it’s going to come off that way to him.’
“In the end, I’m there to get to know him. It doesn’t really matter what goes on in this house. My relationship with Travis is mine. I didn’t want to hear about the other girls because you’ll only get jealous and start thinking other things. You really have to be grounded if you want to find love or a relationship on reality TV because it’s different and it’s stressful.”
Through the third episode, Harwood hasn’t been placed on the “elimination board” that dictates who stays and goes from week to week, so she’s happy about how she’s been received. She’s also kept her thoughts close to the vest, since the other women on the show are less friends than they are competitors.
Locally, she said the feedback has been positive from family, friends and the Atlantic Coast Athletics cheerleading program, which has made shirts and posters to support her quest for love.
“I’ve always told the younger girls that you have to go after what you want to do. I didn’t know I was going to do good in this Miss New Jersey thing, but I went, had a great time and met some great people,” she said.
“With this show, our town’s so little that people get afraid and don’t move out and they’re stuck in that circle again. Even I did it. I said I wanted to go to New York, or be a chef, when I was 18,” she continued. “I’m 25 years old, in the same town. What am I doing? I definitely want to be a role model for people to know that there’s other things out there. There’s plenty of world out there. You can always go home.”
To that end, she’s moved to Philadelphia in recent days and will host a viewing party in South Jersey at 9 p.m. Wednesday (right before she's the celebrity judge in a Halloween costume contest).
As for whether she actually catches Travis Kelce, though, we’ll have to wait to find out. “Chasing Kelce” airs on Wednesday nights, with the finale scheduled for Nov. 16.