May 15, 2014 | by V.V. Ganeshananthan
This is an article from the Spring 2014 issue of LSA Magazine. To read more stories like this, click here.
THERE SHE WENT, MISS AMERICA. Glowing in her sunny yellow gown. Waving her pageant wave. Smiling her Big House-sized smile. Dancing her Bollywood dance.
The girl next door has a new look, courtesy of Nina Davuluri (’11), the first Miss America of Indian decent. Part of what wowed Miss America judges was the talent portion of Davuluri’s program: Fusing Bollywood and classical Indian styles, she danced to the song “Dhoom Taana,” from the movie Om Shanti Om.
Putting her cultural background on center stage was a purposeful move. Davuluri grew up in St. Joseph, Michigan, where she says she was “one of maybe three Indian kids.” Childhood visits to her parents’ native India gave her the opportunity to study Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi, classical Indian dance styles. After graduating from St. Joseph High School in 2007, she matriculated at Michigan State; after a year there, she transferred to the University of Michigan, where she found an extracurricular home with the Indian American Student Association. She joined the board and coordinated the group’s cultural show, an experience that still makes her face light up.
Before winning the national title, Davuluri was first Miss Syracuse and then Miss New York. In 1983, the first black Miss America, Vanessa Williams, followed the same path. Davuluri won the national pageant three decades later to the day (as she happily noted during an appearance on the television show Live with Kelly and Michael). She has made the platform for her year as Miss America “Celebrating Diversity through Cultural Competency,” enlarging the conversation about race started by her famous predecessor.
Such conversation is still sorely needed. While Davuluri’s groundbreaking victory was met with plenty of Asian American (and Indian) elation, it has also seen its fair share of backlash. In the wake of Davuluri’s success, many people took to Twitter wondering why Miss America didn’t look “American.”
Davuluri supporters were outraged at the idea that Miss America had to be white, but Davuluri herself, who is active on Twitter, was neither surprised nor daunted; she’d faced similar reactions as Miss New York. “There’s nothing wrong with sharing my culture and heritage,” she says firmly.
Although she has an official platform as Miss America, Davuluri is also mounting a multi-pronged attack on a variety of other issues close to her heart. She says she is the first Miss America to go into a STEM-related field — her LSA major was brain behavior and cognitive science — and she is interested in promoting women in science. Her efforts and role as a pageant queen may prompt mixed feelings for some: When she spoke about women in science, she also mentioned that one pageant sponsor is a cosmetics company that will let her design her own lip gloss in a lab.
Davuluri’s interest in brains doesn’t preclude talking about beauty, and her openness about various aspects of her background has cleared space for some tough conversations. She has been vocal about her history as a bulimic, her efforts to become healthier, and her recognition that many people did not pay her the same kind of attention when she weighed more. “I was 55 pounds heavier and I was treated very differently,” she says.
Nor is her weight the only aspect of her appearance up for discussion. After she was crowned, some Indians asked whether the dark-complexioned Davuluri could have won a pageant in her parents’ native country, where skin-lightening products remain popular and lighter skin has long been problematically prized. Davuluri wants her success to encourage girls in India to address issues of bigotry related to skin color.
Add to this her support for the arts and her interest in mental health issues and awareness, and it’s clear that Davuluri’s Bollywood dance card is getting full. Increased visibility and influence come at a cost, though — it turns out that life on the road is grueling. “When you win Miss America, all your relationships suffer,” Davuluri admits. She is now the keeper of a journal that has been passed from titleholder to titleholder. Her own entries in it began as elaborate sentences; now, however, she’s whittled her contributions down to bullet points. When she has a few minutes, she’s grateful for a snooze.
Still, she has a future to plan. In November 2013, six weeks into her reign, Davuluri returned to her alma mater, speaking to a packed house at the India Business Conference. There, she told the crowd that her Miss America scholarship money will pay for medical school — and yes, Ann Arbor’s back on her list.
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Photo credit: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images.