People: Face to Face with Miss America, Nina Davuluri
(Photo: Matt Boyd Photography)Her title is more than a rare personal achievement; it also symbolizes a cultural milestone in America. In our exclusive interview with her, Nina talks about her journey, the racial taunts, the show of support that overshadowed the taunts, and how her lifelong reliance on her personal mantra, “Be yourself!” has served her.
When the reigning Miss America won her crown in September 2013, it was no less than a cultural paradigm shift in America. Here’s an institution as American as apple pie, and yet, what was her performance in the talent segment? A rousing Bollywood dance number from the film, Om Shanti Om!
While it may be impossible to downplay Obama’s historic milestone as the nation’s first African American president, it was nevertheless more a political milestone rather than a cultural one. But when Miss America crowned a dusky beauty of Indian origin who is not shy of her cultural heritage, it was as sure a sign as any that the country had indeed embraced its multicultural makeup. ‘Celebrating diversity through cultural competency’ also happened to be the pageant mantra of this stereotype-busting winner.
Now well into her year’s reign as Miss America, Nina Davuluri, that dusky beauty who is also a pre-med student, has been busy traveling the US, sparkling tiara on head, as the National Goodwill Ambassador for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. Her official Twitter account has 50.8 K followers, and if you care to catch a glimpse of how her busy day goes, check out her official Instagram page, which reveals a whirlwind of activities in her year of service.
Born in Syracuse, New York, her family moved to Oklahoma when she was four, and then to Michigan, where she grew up, and where she eventually graduated from the University of Michigan.
We caught up with Nina for a Q&A about the person behind the title, facing racism, and living up to the role and responsibility of being Miss America.
What are your memories of growing up in Michigan?
I was one of five Indians (in my school), and one of them included my sister. I experienced a constant struggle for identity, trying to assimilate with American culture, while holding on to my Indian roots. I learnt through my experiences that assimilation really has to happen from both sides. That is one of the messages I will be promoting this entire year across the country.
Up until recently “Miss America” conjured up images of blonde hair and blue-eyes, not a dusky beauty dancing to the tune of Bollywood, but all-American Nina is also every bit the girl next door.
Growing up, when you looked in the mirror, did you feel beautiful or were you influenced by the American concept of blue-eyed, blonde beauty?
Of course I was. I distinctly remember watching Miss America on TV as a young girl and feeling that I couldn’t ever achieve this title. So for me, when I started competing, it was more than just about money (which was a wonderful resource that has allowed me to pay for my education), but it was also really about changing the image of who Miss America was.
I think Miss America has always been branded and marketed as the girl next door. And I truly believed that the girl next door was evolving along with the diversity in American society. I knew that there were many, many young girls who were watching Miss America like I did when I was little, and finally being able to say this year, “Wow, Miss America actually looks like me!”
How did the Miss America pageant come into your life and why has it been important for you?
I started competing in the Miss America Teen program which was meant to be a feeder or a stepping stone into the Miss America program. One of my friends encouraged me by saying that I have the talent, and that I am always involved in my community.
When I competed at the teen level, I won $25,000 in scholarship money and with that money and the help from my parents I was fortunate enough to graduate debt free from the University of Michigan. Later, when I was going to graduate school, I once again found myself in a position where I had no means to pay for it unless it was through a loan. I just didn’t want to walk out with hundreds and thousands of dollars of debt.
From my past experience, I knew that one way to earn scholarship money quickly was through the Miss America organization, so I started competing again. I competed twice for Miss New York and won the second time and then went on to Miss America. Through the entire time I have been in this organization I have won a total of $91,000 in scholarship money, which is really incredible.
People have taken you to their hearts but there have also been all those racial taunts, so what has it taught you about America?
It is really unfortunate that immediately after I won, there was so much turmoil, but it just went to show how timely and relevant my platform was. My platform is celebrating diversity through cultural competency, something I have essentially been promoting my entire life, because I grew up with so many stereotypes and misconceptions (that I wanted to challenge).
This issue needs to be placed in the spotlight. After I won, many discussions took place in colleges, universities, businesses, news networks, and we took all those negatives and turned them into positives. You know, for every one negative tweet, post, comment I received, I received hundreds, if not thousands of words of positive encouragement and love and support from people—not only Americans but people all across the world. To be able to spark off that global discussion is really incredible.
And what has been the most memorable moment for you, from all that has happened with you?
Oh my goodness, I got quite a few, but one that definitely stands out was being able to meet President Obama in the Oval Office and have a conversation with him. I think, that is when my parents really thought I had a legitimate job, after that encounter!
That must have been amazing, tell me about that.
Well, he asked a lot about my education as well as the job of Miss America. For him to acknowledge my being the first Miss America of Indian descent really meant a lot to me.
What’s the most difficult or daunting moment that you have faced this year?
You know, probably, I think the hardest part about this year is knowing you can’t please everyone. You are not going to make everyone happy, especially when you are in a leadership position, which I was, within many organizations. People always complain about something. If it is not about my race, it is something else.
To wake up every morning and to understand that the best thing I can do is be myself and not try to be anyone else, it is something that I have really tried to live by this year. But it is hard.
Doing what she loves most about her role as Miss America—being the National Goodwill Ambassador for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals.
Tell me about working with nonprofits and making a difference in people’s lives.
It is the best part of my job, because like I said, going back to the service aspect of Miss America is one of the reasons why I was so drawn to this organization. As Miss America I am the National Goodwill Ambassador for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. I visit hospitals all across the country and meet very young children who have many diseases, life threatening illnesses, who have been through dozens of treatments, and are in and out of hospital.
Oftentimes when I visit, they don’t necessarily know who I am or exactly what I do. All they see is that a “princess” has walked into the room for the day. To see that genuine heartfelt smile on these children’s faces is so touching. When I have a mother or father 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 describe my emotion in words, but it is one of the best parts of being in this role.
Tell me something special about your parents?
I thank my parents because they have 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.
With mother Sheela, sister Meena, and father Chowdary.
Is there an anecdote you could share on that?
Something my dad always has said to me is ‘Be yourself.’ I have been hearing that every morning going to grade school and high school, when I would come home from college, and when I left for Miss America. Maybe because I have heard it so much it has really resonated with me and that is what I always tell young people. It is so hard to be yourself, especially in today’s society when we are so influenced by media images, but whenever I am speaking with younger people, I always say know who you are, love who you are, and stand up for who you are—and that is the most important message that I can send.
What about your sister Meena?
She has been my biggest role model ever since I can remember. We are only 18 months apart, so we are very close, but we had our time when we couldn’t get along; everyone goes through that. This year, I am traveling on average 20,000 miles a month. I am usually in no place, no city longer than 48 hours and when I have events from 7 a.m. to 9 or 10 p.m., I often have energy to call only one person, and that person is most likely my sister. So she has been a huge part of my life and where I am today.
And whom were you dressed by for the Miss America pageant?
Actually I design my own gown to an extent. My Miss America gown was modeled after the beautiful yellow ball gown worn by Belle, the Disney princess from Beauty and the Beast.
Are there any aspirations for Bollywood at all?
You know, nothing’s really come my way and first and foremost, more than anything I would really want to finish my education. It is not only about getting any college degree. You really need to have a master’s degree and I won so much scholarship money that I am going to put it to good use. I have worked very hard for it.
Right, but it could happen in the future, like Aishwarya Rai or Priyanka Chopra, they kind of spring-boarded to film from a beauty pageant?
Well, I think it is really different because that is the trend with Miss India, but at the end of the day I am Miss America and Indian films were never really my aspiration so I don’t know—we will see.
What is the most important life lesson for you that you could pass on to the people who see you?
Stay true to yourself. I mean, I can’t tell you how many people told me, “Nina, if you are really serious about winning Miss America, change your talent segment item, because Bollywood will never win.” And it was something that I struggled with. There was no question that if I was going to have a talent it was going to be an Indian dance because growing up I have been trained in classical dance. More than that, it was a part of me, it was who I was. And I knew that if I was going to win Miss America it had to be on my own terms and in my way. To have it actually culminate in the way that it did is really empowering.
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