In the pageant where a contestant once had to come from a “good family” (meaning a WASP-y pedigree), the 2013 Miss America competition showed how far we’ve come: the last two competitors standing were Asian-American.
“We’re making history right here, standing here as Asian-Americans,” said Nina Davuluri, the Indian-American Miss New York, who ended up taking home the crown.
The first Asian-American to win Miss America was 2001’s Miss Hawaii, Angela Perez Baraquino, who is of Filipina descent. The first African-American Miss America graced the stage in 1983, when Vanessa Williams took the crown. And when this year’s title passed to Davuluri, she became the first woman of Indian descent to win.
“We were such a diverse group,” Davuluri, 24, told The Daily Beast about the contestants in 2013 pageant. “It was such an honor … The girl next door is evolving as the vision of Miss America is evolving.”
Almost immediately following Davuluri’s win, racist messages popped up on Twitter. “And the Arab wins Miss America. Classic” read one, “I swear I’m not racist but this is america omg” read another and “Congratulations Miss America. Our Miss America is one of you.”
It’s become virtually impossible to mention Davuluri’s victory without talking about the tweets. The Daily Show even nodded to it, with correspondent Aasif Mandvi jokingly proclaiming that “Indians are taking over!” Davuluri has had to discuss the backlash everywhere from NPR to Good Morning America.
“Miss America is an American icon,” said Regina Hopper, who is on the Board of Directors of the Miss America organization. Hopper said the organization is “glad” that Davuluri has been able to address the racism “so elegantly.”
Davuluri, for one, said that she wasn’t surprised by the comments. “It was something I actually expected,” she said. “It was something that I experienced when I won Miss New York.”
In response to the negative attention she’s received, Davuluri has launched a campaign to embrace diversity, which was always part of her platform as Miss America. On Thursday, she announced a new social-media campaign encouraging people to write in with their own stories of improving cultural awareness. Davuluri asked people to send their stories in via Twitter with the hashtag #CirclesOfUnity. Davuluri says there is a “silver lining” to all the backlash: she’s finally drawing attention to her campaign of promoting diversity.
Originally from Syracuse, New York, Davuluri moved with her family to Michigan, where she attended the University of Michigan before returning to her home state to compete in beauty pageants. Davuluri hopes to attend medical school when her duties as Miss America are finished.
The Twitter haters are not the only hurdle Davuluri has faced in her fight for the crown. Prior to her beauty pageant days in 2011, she worked hard to lose 53 pounds through diet and exercise. She also struggled with bulimia in her youth.
“I realized that I needed to make some serious changes if I wanted to get healthy and feel confident about myself,” Davuluri said in her Miss America testimonial. “I started changing my eating habits and began taking group fitness classes at the gym.”
Now, Davuluri says she is still “learning to stay balanced—emotionally and spiritually as well. “I’m proud of keeping the weight off and keeping a healthy lifestyle,” Davuluri said.
And then there was the swearing scandal. Just two days before the pageant, the New York Post ran a story alleging that Davuluri had been taped calling last year’s winner, Mallory Hagan, “fat as f**k.” Davuluri denies saying those comments, but has apologized to Hagan anyway. A Miss America representative at the time said the incident had been investigated and “there is no validity to the story whatsoever.”
“I never said those words and I’m so proud to follow in Mallory’s footsteps and continue in the footsteps of amazing New Yorkers,” Davuluri told The Daily Beast.
But Davuluri isn’t focused on the past—or the negativity—as she prepares for her next year as Miss America. As part of her duties, she will be traveling around the country promoting her platform on a whistlestop tour.
She kicked things off this week in New York and then headed to Washington, D.C. In New York, she visited with another Miss America trailblazer: Vanessa Williams herself, who is currently starring in The Trip to the Bountiful on Broadway.
“It was a total celeb crush moment,” Davuluri said of meeting Williams. “I just admire her so immensely.”
Davuluri, who is an ambassador to children’s hospitals as Miss America, said is most looking forward to visiting with sick children as part of her duties. To the young women who look up to her as Miss America, she said she would like to tell them to “be yourself.”
“I can’t tell you how many people told me ‘do it this way,’ or ‘change one thing or another,’ and honestly, for me, if I was going to win Miss America, it had to be on my terms and my way. So be yourself and know who you are,” Davuluri said.”