Miss America 2014, Nina Davuluri, spoke in Huntsman Hall last night as part of Asian Pacific American Heritage Week, sponsored by the South Asia Society. Davuluri — who had just visited the White House earlier in the day — is the first Miss America winner of South Asian descent.
Before her talk, The Daily Pennsylvanian sat down with Davuluri to talk about her competition experience, her Indian heritage and the stereotypes associated with Miss America.
The Daily Pennsylvanian: What inspired you to get involved in the Miss America organization?
Nina Davuluri: Definitely the scholarship money. My parents were generous enough to pay for half of my education, but I knew that I needed to pay for the other half. So, I started competing in the Miss America’s Outstanding Teen Program, which is meant to be a feeder into the Miss America program. Through that program I won $25,000 in scholarship money, then I took about a five-year hiatus, went to college and got my degree.
ND: Now, I am in the process of applying to graduate schools. I needed to find another way to pay for that. When I won Miss New York, I won $10,000, [won] and $50,000 when I won Miss America. The Miss America organization is the largest scholarship provider for young women. We make available over $45 million each year for women across the country so it’s definitely one avenue.
DP: How has your Indian heritage contributed to your win?
ND: I definitely went into this organization with a certain vision. Miss America has always been known as that iconic “girl next door” and, for me, I truly believed the “girl next door” was evolving as the diversity in America evolved. So to finally reach out to that younger demographic, a group of new generations who are watching Miss America, like I was 10 years ago, is amazing.
DP: Do you think the Indian standard of beauty is different than the American standard of beauty and how did you reconcile the two?
ND: Absolutely! It’s completely different. I grew up seeing both sides of it because my parents are South Indian and the more fair you are, the more beautiful you are in India. Growing up, it was always like, “Don’t go out in the sun, you’re going to get too dark.” Then I would go to school and all my peers and teacher would say “Oh my goodness, you have such a beautiful skin tone.” Growing up I was very conflicted because I had no idea what to think. It’s sad that we place an emphasis on these beauty standards because it’s all about wanting what you don’t have. To finally change that perception, within India, is something I’m hoping to work on.
DP: I know your personal platform is “Celebrating Diversity Through Cultural Competency.” Can you elaborate on your platform? What specific things would you like to accomplish?
ND: I actually started working on my platform in college. More extensively, I started a program called Calling All Cultures, where students would rotate in elementary classrooms … When I won the title of Miss Syracuse and launched [her campaign, Circles of Unity], I had kids paint unity tiles and had people tweet me pictures with the tiles.
Nationally, we’ve tweaked it a little. I’ve asked everyone to tweet me their pictures, thoughts, videos, whatever it may be about cultural awareness. I really hope that creates a positive and enlightening conversation on social media. It’s not necessarily about opening a discussion about race. It’s about exposing children to these cultures around the world from a young age and engaging them, and that’s what exposes them to break those stereotypes from a young age. I think it’s really important to welcome questions about other cultures because that’s the only way others really learn.
DP: How do you think the definition of “Miss America” has changed in the past few years? And how?
ND: It’s changed a lot. I wanted very badly for it to change. I certainly felt at one point that I could never win because I was Indian. It’s not about me. It’s about every other young girl from a different ethnic background finally being able to relate to this program. We live in a country that is not as simple as black and white anymore. Its really important for this organization to stay relevant to embrace that new demographic and embrace the diversity in this country. Three of the top five were of Asian descent. There were many other cultures and races represented on the stage with 53 of us there.
DP: What are your thoughts on body image and the struggle many college students face with it?
ND: It’s really unfortunate. I struggled with an eating disorder and my body image has forever changed. Even being in this role and being in the public spotlight, people will always criticize you for one thing or another and it never stops. You are certainly expected to look a certain way and do this and do that. All I can say is, be true to yourself. Its very difficult but I’ve learned to develop thick skin, let go of the negative and embrace the positive. Because the best thing I can do as Nina is be the best Nina I can be.
DP: There’s a stereotype associated with being in Miss America competitions. How do you deal with that?
ND: Of course there’s a stereotype. As soon as I walk into a room, people think a certain thing. But what many people don’t know is that we have a 10-minute private interview with a panel of seven judges and that’s really where Miss America is won. Because my job is, by no means, walking around in a swimsuit at all. I have to be well-spoken, handle the press, I have to be able to speak to kindergarteners, to the President and everyone in between … If Miss America happens to be beautiful, that’s just icing on the cake.