MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later in the program, we will head into the Beauty Shop and ask our panel of women journalists and commentators for their thoughts on beauty. We're sparked by a surprising recent revelation by a public figure. But first, we are joined now by a newsmaker in the world of beauty. Nina Davuluri is the first American of Indian descent to take the Miss America crown. Here's a clip from this weekend's event.
(SOUNDBITE OF MISS AMERICA PAGEANT)
NINA DAVULURI: I am most excited to promote my platform, celebrating diversity through cultural competency. I was the first Indian Miss New York, and I'm so proud to be the first Indian Miss America.
MARTIN: Miss America, Nina Davuluri, is with us now. Congratulations. Welcome.
DAVULURI: Thank you so much for having me.
MARTIN: Unfortunately, we're in different cities, so I can't see whether you're wearing your crown or not.
DAVULURI: I'm not.
MARTIN: It would be kind of hard to fit under the headphones, but can you take us back to the moment? Was it like time slowing down? What was it like?
DAVULURI: Yes, it was very surreal, out-of-body experience, being there in the final two. I was holding hands with Miss California, Crystal Lee, and we were both standing there at such a historic moment - two Asian-Americans who were going to take the title and to be a new symbol of hope and encouragement. I've always viewed Miss America as the girl next door, but the girl next door is evolving as the diversity in America evolves.
She's not who she was 10 years ago, and she's not going to be the same person come 10 years down the road, and to be able to promote that this year and to encourage all young girls, regardless of their race, their background, their religion, socioeconomic status, that they can truly live the American dream because that's what I'm doing right now.
MARTIN: Well, you're not the first Asian-American Miss America. That would have been 2001's Angela Perez Baraquio. She's of Filipino descent. But as you pointed out, there were five Asian-Americans competing for the crown. That's the highest number in pageant history. Three of you were in the top five. Two of you were the finalists, and this in a contest where initially the requirements were that contestants be of good health and of the white race. And more to the point, you didn't shy away from your heritage at all. I mean, well, your talent was a Bollywood number, which was quite fun...
MARTIN: ...And exciting. But a lot of support and a lot of excitement about your victory and also, on social media, some real ugliness. Some people just seem to be waiting to say some ugly things. Miss America, you mean Miss 7-Eleven.
MARTIN: Nine-eleven was four days ago, and she gets Miss America. Congratulations, al-Qaeda, our Miss America is one of you. I mean, I apologize, but, you know, what do you make of that?
MARTIN: What do you think that's about?
DAVULURI: Yeah, it's a difficult situation, and that was something I experienced even as Miss New York. That being said, for every one negative tweet or comment that I have seen or received, I have received dozens of positive words of encouragement, support and love. One of the preliminary rounds of competition fell on September 11th. To stand on that stage and announce myself as Miss New York, and I said, the Freedom Tower stands tall as a symbol of our nation's resilience and unity - just having that experience was so meaningful and so special.
MARTIN: Why do you think you won? I know it's kind of unfair to ask you that. You won because you're awesome of course. Why do you think you won? What do you think took you over the top?
DAVULURI: Well, goodness. You know, it's so difficult to say because I really was with 52 other Miss Americas, and anyone could have done the job. But I really believed that -right now my platform is celebrating diversity through cultural competency, and it is so timely and so relevant.
MARTIN: Why did you decide to start competing? I talked to Vanessa Williams, who was the first African-American Miss America back in 1983, and she in fact entered not as - quite as a joke, but it was not her heart's desire. She did in fact...
MARTIN: ...Enter for the scholarship money and a lot of other contestants do, too. But there's a lot of training involved, a lot of preparation.
MARTIN: What got you started on this to begin with?
DAVULURI: Well, first, let me just comment on Vanessa Williams because she was a former Miss Syracuse, and I was also a former Miss Syracuse. We both went on to win the Miss New York title and both two very historic Miss Americas. It was exactly 30 years ago to the date, September 15th, we were both crowned. So that's just so surreal, but I was in the same situation. I actually competed in the Miss America's Outstanding Teen program, and through that, I won $25,000 in scholarship money, and with that money and help of my parents, I was able to graduate debt-free from the University of Michigan. I took about five years off from the pageant world and, you know, took time to finish my undergraduate degree. And I'm in the process of applying to medical school right now, and I have zero funds for my education. That was a large part of why I came back to the organization, and I now have a total of 60,000 to put towards that, which is amazing.
MARTIN: Are you really going to go, or is that just something you just told your parents?
DAVULURI: (Laughing) I'm really going to go. I mean, I took the MCAT. I finished all my requirements. I'm ready for it, and hoping now, with this title, my application stands out a little more.
MARTIN: What area of practice are you hoping for? It's going to be a while, obviously...
DAVULURI: It is.
MARTIN: ...Because you have your reign, and then you got to go apply and go to school and...
DAVULURI: Yeah, it certainly is. My degree in undergrad was in brain behavior and cognitive science, and I really loved it. So psychiatry is definitely on the radar, but not ruling anything out.
MARTIN: OK, if you go into plastic surgery, I'm going to be kind of mad.
DAVULURI: You'll know my thoughts about that based on my final answer.
MARTIN: I've wanted to ask you about this. We're talking in the next segment about this whole, again, interest in being light-skinned in some other countries...
DAVULURI: Oh, my, goodness. Yeah.
MARTIN: ...The country of your heritage, in India. What do you make of that?
DAVULURI: Yes, it's so unfortunate. And so, in India, you know, the lighter or more fair skin you are, you're supposedly considered more beautiful. And I grew up with that, you know, in my own household because my parents are from India. So my family would always say, oh, don't go out in the sun, you're going to get too dark, or things like that. But then with my peers, they would say, oh, my goodness, you're so tan. Your skin is so beautiful. And it's really sad that we always try to attain those ideals that aren't important.
MARTIN: Well, what are you going to do during your reign as Miss America, my Queen?
DAVULURI: Well, I travelled across the country. I am - apparently, Miss America is not in one place for more than 48 hours. So I'll be traveling all across America, of course, promoting my platform which I spoke about, but also being an ambassador for the Children's Miracle Network Hospitals. And so I'll be visiting hospitals all across the country, as well as promoting STEM education - science, technology, engineering and math.
MARTIN: So the idea being that you can both be...
DAVULURI: Beauty and brains.
MARTIN: Beauty and brains. That's right. So how is it so far? You're only a couple days into your reign. How is it?
DAVULURI: It's been an amazing, incredible opportunity. The support and love that I have received from so many different people has been so warming and heartfelt. Unfortunately, I was whisked away. I hadn't had much time to spend with my family, but it's going to be an amazing ride.
MARTIN: Nina Davuluri is Miss America. Here she is, and she was kind enough to join us from our studios in New York. Miss America, Nina Davuluri, thank you so much for joining us. Congratulations, once again.
DAVULURI: Thank you so much for having me.
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