Miss America 2014, Nina Davuluri -- the first winner of Indian descent -- wasn't always celebrated by her peers. In middle school, the future pageant pioneer felt misunderstood by her classmates because of her heritage. That's why her candidate platform for Miss New York (and later Miss America) was "Diversity through cultural competency." On Wednesday, she spoke about the value of social diversity at Macy's in San Francisco. I spoke to Davuluri about the event, feeling misunderstood, her proudest moment in the Miss America competition, pageant queen misconceptions, and her favorite apps.
Why is this event important to you?
It's amazing to work with a company like Macy's, especially representing the state of New York. I was Miss New York before this, and the Macy's in New York on 34th Street is quintessential New York, so I'm really excited to work with them for a cause that is essentially my platform, which is celebrating diversity and cultural competency. I'm partnering with Macy's for Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, all through May. We're doing a cross-country tour, where I'm hitting six different cities, so just to bring awareness to that for the customers and the communities in the surrounding areas is great.
What do you hope that people learn about the Asian-Pacific American culture?
I'm only one piece of the puzzle, so I'm primarily speaking about my struggles growing up, being born and brought up in America with immigrant parents. My parents are from India, and a lot of us South Asians go through a struggle to maintain a balance with our culture and heritage while trying to assimilate with the American culture. So just sharing my story and helping people understand that assimilation really happens from both sides. You have to be willing to ask questions and welcome questions at the same time.
Did you feel misunderstood, growing up?
I was born in Syracuse, New York, but my family moved to Oklahoma when I was 4 and Michigan when I was 10, so I mainly grew up in the South and Midwest. In both areas I grew up with the same stereotypes -- really common questions like "Are you gonna have an arranged marriage?", "Do you worship cows?", and "What does the red dot mean?" The list goes on and on.
So many of these remarks weren't meant to be malicious but were just due to ignorance. That's where my platform stems from, from just addressing those stereotypes. I think we all go through that at some point in our lives -- a phase where we're embarrassed of something in our lives -- and just overcoming that phase and becoming proud of who I was and my culture -- that took my parents and my community to bring it out of me.
What was the most challenging aspect of the Miss America competition?
The swimsuit part, and that goes without saying, because I don't think any girl loves the swimsuit competition. Other than that, I actually struggled with my talent a little bit, because I can't tell you how many people said to me, "Nina, if you're really serious about winning Miss New York or Miss America, then change your talent, because Bollywood will never win. That is something I really thought about. But I knew that if I was to win this title, it had to be on my terms and in my way. Also, it wouldn't have meant as much if I hadn't stayed true to myself and performed something that was so special to me.
What did nailing that performance mean to you?
I would say that is my moment as Miss America that I had tears in my eyes, because I knew I was on national television, in front of millions of people, sharing this talent. Friends were going crazy and the Indian community. That was my moment, and I think winning Miss America was just icing on the cake.
Can you clear up any pageant queen misconceptions for us?
Absolutely. So everything you see on TV and "Miss Congeniality" are absolutely false. I understand that there's an entertainment factor involved, but girls had said to me that you really walk away from this experience with some of your closest friends. I went in with the same kind of "Oh, really?" But we're in Atlantic City for two weeks before any of the competition takes place, and all we have is each other. When you put 52 of the most intelligent, beautiful, and driven women together, you're going to connect over something. That's not to say there aren't a few bad apples, but I walked away with a group of friends -- Miss Arkansas, Miss Virginia, and Miss Illinois -- and we talk every day. Miss Arkansas is getting married in the fall, and all three of us are her bridesmaids. That's something that took me by surprise that I'm really happy it happened.
The first Miss America pageant was held in 1921. Eighty-seven pageants later, does Miss America continue to inspire young women?
I think Miss America has always been known as a good, wholesome role model, and today there are very few role models for our youth to look up to. I hate throwing Miley Cyrus under the bus, but with so many Mileys and Lindsay Lohans and all the craziness we see in entertainment, America is hungry for something that is good and wholesome and pure. When I have parents coming up to me and thanking me for being a role model that their children can look up to -- that is why this organization is so relevant. But also through this organization, I've won $92,000 in scholarship money, and because of that money I've graduated debt free from University of Michigan, and I have $62,000 to put toward my graduate degree. So not only has it given me a megaphone to put toward my platform, but it's allowed me to pay for my education, as well.
What are your top five mobile apps?
Twitter and Instagram, because social media is just a part of my job. It's been a little difficult for me, because I'm a very private person. But it's something you have to stay connected with, because people want to know what you're doing, and it's a great resource to share that. I'm always doing something, because being Miss America is more than walking around in a pretty dress. Snapchat is an easy way for me to stay in touch with so many people at one time, for my friends and family to see what I'm doing. GroupMe, because it's just so easy to send group messages in one thing. MyFitnessPal, because staying healthy on the road is tough, and that really helps me keep track of what I'm putting in my mouth.