On Monday night, after a months-long delay due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a new Miss USA was finally crowned at Elvis Presley’s Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee. Reigning Miss Mississippi USA Asya Branch secured the coveted title against the blinding backdrop of the sparkling, rhinestone-encrusted masks of her fellow contestants (chosen to match their equally shiny Sherri Hill gowns, of course).
The 22-year-old Ole Miss grad made history when she became the first Black Miss Mississippi in 2018. In her introductory video at the beginning of the Miss USA broadcast, she spoke about her passion for criminal justice reform, citing her participation in a roundtable on the subject with President Trump.
The prison reform roundtable was not the only time Branch has been in close proximity to the recently defeated president. She also performed the National Anthem at a Trump rally in Southaven, Mississippi, in October of 2018. In the caption of an Instagram post from the event, she wrote, “Incredible honor to sing the national anthem tonight in Southaven for the President Trump rally,” punctuated with an American flag emoji.
Branch took home the top prize on Monday evening after sharing her thoughts on gun control. Following two intense rounds of eliminations in the swimsuit and evening gown contests, the final speaking round of the competition asked the remaining five “candidates” to deliver a 30-second statement on a topic randomly selected from a plastic box. Miss Mississippi drew the “gun laws” card.
“As someone who grew up in a home with guns, I learned at an early age how to load, how to fire, and gun safety,” Branch began her statement, “and I think that education should be available to everyone.” She went on to say that she believes people should have to go through training and pass safety tests before they’re allowed a permit for a gun.
Ultimately, though, the beauty queen was clear in her defense of the right to bear arms. “I think it’s important that we not ban guns, because obviously people will find a way to get what they want anyways, but I think it’s our Second Amendment Right, and we just need more safety surrounding that,” she said.
In an earlier segment of the competition, she also weighed in on the political polarization of the country, attributing it to a lack of trust in the “systems that seem to keep our country running, from the media, to business, to our government.” (She’s also voiced some troubling views on those in the gay community, albeit back in 2012.)
The rest of the Miss USA broadcast was full of the obligatory social distancing jokes and opaque explanations of safety procedures we’ve come to expect from a live television event produced in 2020. Hosts Allie LaForce and Akbar Gbaja-Biamila explained that contestants were tested and quarantined, and the smaller-than-usual live audience was temperature-checked and asked to wear masks.
There seemed, however, to be a complete lack of consistency in the enforcement of the contestants wearing masks. For example, the introduction portion of the show featured dozens of mask-less, perfectly made-up faces. But immediately after the commercial break, they were suddenly all masked up for no clear reason other than to delight viewers with the imagined visual of 51 women in heels clamoring to find their masks backstage before the break ends.
Later, LaForce described the ballgown-clad finalists, again not wearing masks, as “10 impressive women, six feet apart,” as if simply saying it out loud would make it true.
No need to worry, though, because as was pointed out several times throughout the show, Graceland is apparently chock-full of hand sanitizer dispensers—just the way the King would have wanted it.