ATLANTIC CITY - "Standing here making history as Asian Americans we are so proud," said Miss New York Nina Davuluri, moments before being named Miss America 2014 Sunday night. She is the first contestant of Indian descent to win the pageant.
The first runner-up was Miss California Crystal Lee, 22, who has undergraduate and graduate degrees from Stanford University.
The crowd gave a thunderous cheer for Davuluri, 24, of Syracuse, New York. It was the second year in a row that the winner was from New York. She succeeds Mallory Hagan.
A graduate of the University of Michigan, Davuluri's pageant platform was "Celebrating Diversity Through Cultural Competency."
And she certainly lived up to her platform, performing a classical Bollywood fusion dance wearing a traditional Indian costume decorated with spangles and bugle beads.
Davuluri, who calls herself a huge Harry Potter fan, plans to become a physician.
She will dip her toe in the ocean in Atlantic City Monday morning.
Asked during the question portion of the contest about plastic surgery to make Asian women look less Asian, Davuluri replied, "I don't agree with plastic surgery, however I can understand that from a standpoint. More importantly, I've always viewed Miss America as the girl next door, and Miss America is always evolving. I wouldn't want to change someone's looks. Be confident in who you are."
The crowning of an Indian American beauty as Miss America also set off a spate of ugly comments on Twitter and on the Miss America Facebook page. "Disgusted that a true 100 percent American did not win" wrote a commenter who identified herself as Renee Meeks. The comments were immediately denounced, and many rejoiced in the new role model. Of the Twitter-verse negativity, Davuluri said at a post-pageant news conference: "I have to rise above that. I am the first Indian Miss America. I have always viewed myself first and foremost as an American. I was born in Syracuse. There are always extreme people who are going to say things like that, but you have to rise above it."
She added: "I'm so happy this organization has embraced diversity. I'm so thankful there are children out there at home who can now relate to a new Miss America."
Lots of things have changed inside Boardwalk Hall since the last pageant was held here - no more extended runway - down to about 100 feet, from about 250 in the 1980s and 1990s. No longer does the media 'own' the seats along that runway, either, with scribblers, tweeters, and bloggers relegated to nosebleed sections behind state representatives.
And without a live orchestra, a kind of carnival atmosphere was created inside the cavernous hall with sign-holding contingents screaming and clapping loudly as 'their' contestant was blasted across the two huge television screens strategically placed in the hall.
An event with so much tradition and pomp seen in previous years seemed reduced to made-for-TV-reality show with hosts Lara Spencer and Chris Harrison at the helm as the 53 contestants finally took the stage a full 10 minutes after the start of the live broadcast and shimmied and clapped as previous Miss Americas took an onstage turn.
With a couple of glitches, the entire event began to take on a part-gladiator, part-live wrestling air, with the feeling of a loud, disorganized event built around a television event, rather than the other way around.
But Atlantic City watchers had a different take on the proceedings. "A national audience has just seen Atlantic City as a beautiful island gem with a gorgeous Boardwalk along the Atlantic Ocean," said Liza Cartmell, president of the Atlantic City Alliance, a nonprofit tourism marketing organization. "The return of Miss America to Atlantic City is a symbol of Atlantic City's great comeback."
Cartmell says Atlantic City has changed tremendously since the last time the pageant was help here in 2005.
"We are proud to show off the best the resort destination has to offer to a national television audience," Cartmell said. "Much like the 53 contestants, Miss America is Atlantic City's time to shine."
Inside the hall, the 12,000-seat arena was about two-thirds full. Tickets for the general public cost $50 to $250.
The crowd went wild as the top 15 contestants strutted their stuff in the much-anticipated - and, by some, disliked - swimsuit competition. But the pageant has its Atlantic City roots as a bathing beauty contest, after all.
The contestants stayed swim-suited for the grilling, meant to determine how quickly they can think on their feet. But they were helped into their sashes and cover-ups onstage by pageant volunteers.
After a nearly two-week run-up to the pageant that included clams bakes, three nights of preliminary rehearsals for a two-hour extravaganza pageant officials said would rival the Academy Awards, and three nights of preliminary competition, it all came down to two hours Sunday night.
Officials wanted to put the best foot forward for Atlantic City, a casino gaming down that has taken some knocks in recent years, after it pulled the pageant back from a run in rival Las Vegas.
Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the "Downashore" blog at inquirer.com/downashore. Follow on Twitter @JacquelineUrgo.