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Jersey Girl Is The Real Deal

By Gary Wien

You may know Marisa Petroro from her work on "Deal or No Deal", the popular television game show, but it might not be long before her film acting career trumps that show on her resume. In fact, her upcoming film Everybody Wants To Be Italian just might be the role to take this former beauty queen from Elizabeth, New Jersey to the top. Ironically, the film will be released around the same time that Marisa will be honored as "Italian-American Woman of the Year" by The Center for Italian and Italian-American Culture. The honor comes at a black tie gala event at The Villa in Mountain Lakes, NJ on September 22nd.

Petroro is being honored for her work as a positive role model for Italian-American youth. While in college, Marisa was diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare childhood cancer that affects the muscles. As a cancer survivor, Marisa now volunteers her time to helping people who have been diagnosed with cancer and are undergoing chemotherapy.

"Because of 'Deal or No Deal' there has been a lot of people who have reached out to me regarding their friends or family members who have cancer," said Marisa Petroro. "A lot of them have been children. I've just kind of been keeping in touch with them, giving some words of wisdom; that really helped me when I was first diagnosed. The hospital that I went to (The Hackensack Medical Center) put me in touch with this girl who was just a couple of years older than me. She had a different type of cancer than I did, but she had survived and was going on with her life. I spoke to her and she spoke about it in such a calm way. It was like, 'yeah, I went through chemo and it was fine and you'll be fine. It's really not a big deal.' And that was the attitude that I went in with. I took it somewhat lightly because of the conversation that I had with this girl and it really helped me, so I just try to pay back what was given to me."

Petroro was attending Rutgers University when the cancer hit. After a month of noticing her hand getting painfully numb while resting on her desk, she began getting worried that something was wrong. Then one day she noticed a lump on her arm. The campus doctors thought she had just broken a blood vessel, but when she saw her family doctor over the holidays she was diagnosed with cancer.

"About 350 children are diagnosed with it every year, so it's pretty rare," she explained. "I went through a year of chemo and radiation and I wouldn't change anything in my life. I'm grateful for having gone through that because it's helped me remain grounded - especially in Hollywood. When things make you a little crazy and nutty, I just reflect on everything that I've been through and it keeps me grounded in a good space."

The cancer treatment forced her to leave school and when she was ready to return she decided to go to Kean University because it was closer to home. Marisa grew up in Elizabeth on Jefferson Avenue right next door to City Hall. She still has family in New Jersey and enjoys coming home whenever she gets the chance. She's actually returned to Kean University on several occasions to work with recruiting videos and once as a commencement speaker.


Her latest film was shot last year in Los Angeles and Boston. It revolves around Jake (played by Jay Jablonski) who has spent the last eight years focused on winning back his ex-girlfriend, Isabella (played by Marisa Petroro). Unfortunately, Isabella has not only moved on but is married with children. Jake's friends then set him up on a blind date with an Italian woman (played by Marisa Costa) from Boston's North End. Since they know she would never date someone who isn't Italian, Jake's friends set out to teach him how to fake being Italian.

As with many actors, Marisa Petroro has had to endure many years of small parts before landing roles in hits like Reno 911!. She had worked with the director of Everybody Wants To Be Italian (Jason Todd Ipson) previously in the film Unrest. The two had met years earlier when Marisa worked on a short film done at USC. Ipson was graduating from the producer's program at USC and knew the director of Marisa's movie.

"He liked my work in the film and said he'd love to work with me one day when he gets his production company going," said Petroro. "I'm like, I've heard that one a thousand times before in L.A.!"

While she may be just beginning to make her name on the national level, Petroro is something of a local celebrity in New Jersey. She's won several New Jersey based beauty crowns and was Miss Italia USA in 1996 (she finished in the Top Five for Miss Italia World that year). It all started when she was around four years old and her mother saw an ad in the paper for a local beauty contest in Union County. From then on, Marisa was hooked.

"I've always been pretty shy," she admits. "Even today, it depends on when you get me, but I guess I have to work on being a little more extroverted and maybe that's why I'm an actor. Being on stage puts a wall up for me so I can become a different person; it's ok to be extroverted and be out there and enjoy the spotlight. But when I'm just being Marisa in a social setting, I am not the center of attention. I let other people do that. I may have my moments, but I'm not that person."

She'll certainly be the center of attention on September 22nd when she's named "Italian-American Woman of the Year" and it's a moment she deserves. From facing the adversity of cancer as a teenager to becoming a Hollywood star and giving back to the community, Petroro shows her beauty is more than skin deep.

Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at gary@newjerseystage.com.


originally published: 09/01/2007

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