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Here’s Miss America! How is she doing?
If you thought Miss America had to be blonde and blue eyed, you have to meet Nina Davuluri, the current Miss America. Not only did her dark almond shaped eyes and dusky complexion showcase her Indian roots but she also won big with her rousing Bollywood dance number from ‘Om Shanti Om.’Yes, Miss America is of Indian origin – and proud of it!
Indeed, this Miss America is the first with Indian roots and really shows what’s special about America: you can be of a different heritage, speak a different language, pray to a different god, yet you are American.
In a real American Dream come true, Nina was crowned Miss America 2014 in Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall as the entire world watched. A big victory for little brown girls everywhere! She received the glittering crown and a $50,000 scholarship.
As Miss America, her platform issue is ’Celebrating Diversity through Cultural Competency’ and she is the official National Goodwill Ambassador for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. She is also be the official spokesperson for R.E.I.G.N. Cosmetics, Joseph Ribkoff Inc. and Catalina Swimwear. And oh, yes, is traveling all over the US, a rising American star.
For young Indian women around the globe, Nina Davuluri has been a role model, showing them that their dreams can come true, and that there are many concepts of beauty. Davuluri, 24, who was born in Syracuse, New York, moved with her family to Oklahoma and then to Michigan, when she was 10. She graduated from the University of Michigan.
An American Story
Nina grew up as a typical second-generation kid but her parents, both doctors, are from the city of Vijayvada in Andra Pradesh in South India. “You know it was all about the American Dream, to provide opportunities for my sister and I that they didn’t necessarily have themselves,” says Nina. “And it really worked out in more ways than one because with this title and role and everything that has happened throughout my life, essentially it is a small part of my own American dream.”
A graduate of University of Michigan, she did all the right desi things – made the Dean’s list, bagged the Michigan Merit Award and was also in the National Honor Society. And her career ambition is one which delights all desi parents – to become a physician!
Growing up in Michigan, Nina didn’t feel much like Miss America – in fact, she was the only Indian girl in her class in Oklahoma. She says, “I was often mistaken for native American and when I moved to Michigan I was one of five Indian girls – and one of them was my sister – so really one of three Indian children in our school! So it was always a constant struggle of identity for me trying to assimilate with the American culture, while holding on to my Indian roots.
When she looked in the mirror as a young girl, did she feel she was beautiful or was she influenced by the American concept of blue-eyed blonde beauty? Nina says that growing up, she never felt she could achieve this title but was drawn to competing because of the scholarship money that was offered for further education.
“It was also really about trying to change the image of who Miss America was, because I think she has always been branded and marketed really as a girl next door and I truly believed that the girl next door was evolving as the diversity in America evolved,” says Nina. ” Now there are so many young girls who can say, “Wow, Miss America actually looks like me!”
Bollywood reigns at Miss America Pageant
The Miss America Story
Nina Davuluri started by first competing in the Miss America teen program which is a feeder or stepping stone to the Miss America pageant. In the teen contest, she won $25,000 in scholarship money and with that money and the help of her parents, she managed to graduate debt free from the University of Michigan.
When it came to graduate school, after she finished college, she once again turned to the beauty pageant as a way of financing her education. She competed twice for the Miss New York title and won the second time, going on to compete for the Miss America title. I competed twice for Ms. New York and won the second time and then went on to Ms. America. Throughout her pageant days she has won a total of $91,000 in scholarship money which she says with a smile, “It is really incredible!”
Nina’s gorgeous gown was inspired by one her favorite Disney movies, ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ ” Belle is my favorite Disney princess and she had that beautiful yellow ball gown, and I dressed up as Belle for three Halloween’s in a row when I was younger because I was obsessed with that dress! So the gown that I wore was very similar to that. I had taken more grown up sexy version definitely, but it was with yellow cap sleeves and I loved it!”
Nina is an overnight celebrity, the center of attraction wherever she goes. The best part of the Miss America win was definitely being able to meet President Obama in the Oval Office and having a conversation with him. She laughs: “I think, that is when my parents really thought I had a legitimate job, after that encounter!”
Nina Davuluri on Diversity
One of the aftermaths of the win was the disbelief in many quarters that an Indian girl had won the pageant and there were some very racist comments on Twitter and other social media which Nina handled with grace. “It is really unfortunate that immediately, right after I won, it was surrounded by so much turmoil but it just went to show how timely and relevant my platform was,” she says.
” My platform is celebrating diversity and it is something I have essentially been promoting my entire life, because I grew up with so many stereotypes and misconceptions.” She feels this issue needs to be put in the spotlight and since her win, there have been many discussions happening in colleges and in the media, to take all that is negative and turn it into positives.
“You know, for every one negative tweet, post, or comment I received, I received hundreds if not thousands of words of positive encouragement and support from people – not only Americans but people all across the world. To have that global discussion take place and spark that discussion is really incredible.”
So what is Miss America’s life like? Behind the glitter and the glamour, it is a lot of hard work. Says Nina, “I travel every other day. I am on a plane every other day and, travel on average 20,000 miles a month. So I have racked up quite a few points on my miles! I sleep on the plane and any chance I get to sleep, I will. It is exhausting and I try to really stay hydrated more than anything else.”
Princess on Call
One of the most rewarding parts of the job is interacting with people, especially children. Miss America is the National Goodwill Ambassador for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals and she make hospital visits. “I visit hospitals all across the country and many times you know, these are all very young children who have many diseases, life- threatening illnesses. They have been through dozens of treatments, and in and out of hospital.”
Many of the kids don’t know who she is but are delighted to have her with them. Fascinated by her crown, some ask her if she lives in a castle. “All they see is that a princess has walked into the room for the day and to see that genuine heartfelt smile on these children’s faces is so touching; when I have a parent come up to me and say ‘My child hasn’t smiled in weeks or months and she did today because you were here,’ – it is really hard to put that into an emotional context or to describe that in words, but it is one of the best parts of being in this role!”
Nina describes the children with tubes connected to their arms, struggling in pain and away from a normal life with school and friends. “If you can just take their minds off of what they are going through for a minute, it really goes a long way for them. I have done everything from reading books to them to just speaking with them to a radio talk show in the hospital and had them call in from their room, which was really fun.”
Even as Miss America fulfils her duties and goes to events across the country, her further education and life waits for her. Her undergraduate degree was in brain behavior and cognitive science and she sees psychiatry on the radar.
Does she have any Bollywood aspirations at all, like Priyanka Chopra or Aishwariya Rai? She says that more than anything she’d like to complete her education first. “Education is really important to survive now in the world we live in. It is not only about getting a college degree. You really need to have a master’s degree and I just won so much scholarship money and I am going to put that to good use. I have worked very hard for it!”
What’s been the hardest part about her win? She feels you cannot please everyone and there always will be detractors. “If it is not my race, it is something else. And to just wake up every morning and to understand that the best thing I can do is be the best Nina I can be and not try to be anyone else but to stay true to myself. It is something that I have really tried to live by this year. But it is hard.”
Her parents play a great part in her success, allowing her to explore all options. “They’ve been tough on me, bless their hearts but that has really made me the person I am today and I don’t think I would have been as good a role model, especially in a role like Miss America if I didn’t have the values and morals they have instilled in me since the time I was very young.”
Nina’s Mantra: Be Yourself
From the time she was a child, her father has always encouraged her – “Be Yourself”. She says, “And maybe because I have heard it so much it has really resonated with me. It is so hard to be yourself, especially in today’s society when we see so many images and we are so influenced by media. Whenever I am speaking with younger groups, I always tell them – know who you are, love who you are, and stand up for who you are.”
For Nina family relationships are all important and she has a special bond with her sister Meena who is 18 months older. She says, “She has been my biggest role model ever since I can remember. My parents tell me that ever since I was young I would always do everything like her and she is my best friend. On hectic days, at night I have energy to talk to only one person on the phone and that person is most likely my sister. So she has been a huge part of my life and where I am today.”
A piece of Nina’s heart belongs to her dog whom she got when she was just ten. “Hanuman is half Golden Retriever and half question mark. We are not fully sure of his other half. But he looks more like a Retriever than anything. My family actually has a group text and every now and then my mom will send us videos and pictures of him which brightens my day just a little.”
Nina doesn’t have much time for TV but her favorites are Bruising Dad, Scandals, Modern Family and of course, The Mindy Project – headed as she is to a medical career.
What is her mantra for success? It is simple and something we all can emulate:
“Stay true to yourself.”
When she was preparing for the Miss America contest, many people told her that if she was serious about winning, she must change her talent presentation because Bollywood would never, ever win.
“It was something that I struggled with and there was no question that if I was going to have a talent it was going to be an Indian dance because I have been so classically trained growing up, I have been doing it my entire life, more than that it was a part of me, it was who I was,” she says.
“I knew that if I was going to win Miss America it had to be on my terms and in my way. I stuck to it and to have it actually culminate in the way that it did is really empowering.”
Now you know Miss America: Nina Davuluri, beautiful on the outside, beautiful on the inside!
(This article first appeared in Friday Magazine, Gulf News)
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