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Asian blood gives new life to pageant

Nina Davulari was the first American of Indian descent to with the Miss America title

Publication Date : 23-09-2013


In an era when you can find a place called Jaipur Junction serving briyani near a row of South Asian mom-and-pop stores and the Shiva Vishnu temple in an Ohio suburb the likes of Parma, it came as little surprise to most Americans that a woman of Indian descent is their newest "All-American girl".

Last Sunday, Nina Davuluri was crowned Miss America 2014 on a prime-time national television broadcast from Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Born in Syracuse, New York, to parents who emigrated from the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, the 24-year-old became the first American of Indian descent to win.

This year's runner-up, 22-year-old San Francisco native Crystal Lee, boasts a Chinese heritage, giving Asian Americans two of the top three spots.

In a milestone that many journalists seemed to miss in a rush to report the kind of racist reactions that often pop up on Twitter after such events, Davuluri's win breathed new life into a beauty pageant that many Americans view as a relic of a Jurassic era that played up women as sex symbols.

She, like many of the other 52 finalists - one from each state, plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands - showed off as much brains as beauty.

In fact, Davuluri has a degree in brain behaviour and cognitive science from the University of Michigan, where she was on the dean's list, in the National Honour Society and earned a Michigan Merit Award. She said she entered the beauty contest not to show off her looks but for the US$50,000 scholarship prize that will help her pursue her education and follow her father into the medical profession.

And if her credentials are not enough to make any American proud that she is the new face of the nation's vibrant diversity, her answer during the question phase of the competition should.

A judge referred to a recent confession by Chinese American television celebrity Julie Chen that she had eye surgery to make her look less Asian, and asked Davuluri what message that sent to young women.

Without putting down Chen, she spun a perfect response: "I've always viewed Miss America as the girl next door. And the girl next door is evolving as the diversity in America evolves. I wouldn't want to change someone's looks or appearance, but definitely be confident in who you are."

Indeed, Davuluri did not play down her heritage, she embraced it. In the talent competition, she performed a fusion of classical and Bollywood dance moves barefoot to the song Dhoom Taana from a satire of Bollywood movies called Om Shanti Om.

Having studied Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam dance styles, she had worked out the routine with celebrated Bollywood choreographer Nakul Dev Mahajan and the audience gave her a standing ovation.

Quartz ideas editor S. Mitra Kalita, who also wrote Suburban Sahibs: Three Immigrant Families And Their Passage From India To America, told The Christian Science Monitor, that Davuluri's performance was noteworthy "because it's an assertion of identity from another place. And yet that's what makes her even more American".

Moments after Davuluri was named Miss America, tweets lit up social media, some saying she looked like an Arab terrorist and calling the judges liberals influenced by Al-Qaeda.

By contrast, Lakshmi Gandhi, co-founder of an online magazine that focuses on South Asian Americans called The Aerogram, told AFP that she noticed an overwhelmingly positive response to Davuluri highlighting her heritage. She criticised media groups that highlighted racist comments.

"Everybody knows that these people with five, 10 Twitter followers exist," she said. "It's so hateful, everybody knows these people exist, and I don't know why we are blasting their views to the world."

Some observers were quick to cheer the fact that Davuluri not only took pride in her roots but was obviously comfortable in her skin. AFP reported Gandhi describing her as "a bit darker than what Indian culture often considers beautiful".

Lakshmi Chaudhry put it even more bluntly in a headline on her blog on the Indian website "Miss America Nina Davuluri: Too 'Indian' to ever be Miss India."

In it, she wrote: "That gorgeous chocolate may play as exotic in the West, but in India, we prefer our beauty queens strictly vanilla - preferably accessorised with blue contact lenses."


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