Miss America dips her toe into controversial reign

Nina Davuluri at news conference.
Nina Davuluri at news conference. (Getty Images)
Posted: September 18, 2013

ATLANTIC CITY When the new Miss America, Nina Davuluri, took the requisite toe dip in the ocean Monday, the morning after becoming the first Indian American woman to wear the crown, there was the usual gaggle of media following her to the water's edge.

But as she posed next to an Atlantic City lifeboat and flashed a broad smile for the cameras - a tradition that was long a part of the post-pageant festivities, until the contest moved to Las Vegas for six years - the former Miss New York was also flanked by a heavy police presence.

As many as a dozen local uniformed officers and a bomb-sniffing dog had performed a sweep of the beach just before the beauty queen arrived. Not until police gave the all-clear did the seemingly aw-shucks photo-op begin. No previous Miss America toe dip had required quite so much security.

Pageant officials declined to comment on the police presence or whether security had been specifically stepped up. They have also not said whether forthcoming appearances or promotions would highlight Davuluri's ethnicity or pageant platform, which centers on celebrating diversity "through cultural competency."

Sharon Pearce, president of the Miss America Organization, said she was not prepared to talk about issues relating to security or public appearances for the pageant winner.

Sam Haskell III, chairman of the Miss America board of directors, did not address security or public-relations issues, but said much of Davuluri's time - 325 days of the next year - will be spent on public appearances related to the Children's Miracle Network Hospitals and scholarship-related causes. The Miss America Pageant awards about $300,000 a year in scholarships to its 53 participants, making it one of the largest educational endowments for young women, according to the organization.

Thanks to Twitter and the age of instant - some would argue, useless - self-expression, pageant officials were able to know whether the crowning of Davuluri, 24, of Syracuse, would be a hot-button issue.

Within seconds of her being named Miss America 2014, the Twittersphere exploded with ugly criticism that a woman of Indian descent had been crowned the winner of the famed pageant. It also went wild with support for the young woman, who graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in brain behavior and cognitive science, and who plans a career as a physician.

The Telugu Association of North America sent an e-mail to its members Sunday night congratulating Davuluri's win, said Sailaja Adluru, past president of its Delaware Valley chapter.

Davuluri's family are Telugu immigrants from the southeastern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Telugus are mostly Hindus, like most Indians, who speak the Telugu language.

"We are so happy, so proud of Nina. She is a role model for second-generation Indians in this country," Adluru said.

"But we do not like the negative remarks being made. It is ridiculous that someone from a culture that is part of the American culture and contributes much to it can be attacked in such a way," Adluru noted.

Some of the racist tweets rebuked the judges' choice, using words such as terrorist and anti-American in their 140-character rants.

The judges, including television chef Carla Hall, entertainer Lance Bass, and New York Knicks forward Amar'e Stoudemire, said in a post-pageant news conference that they chose Davuluri based on her talent and ability. Hall noted that Davuluri's being of Indian descent, with a platform of celebrating diversity, was a bonus.

Wearing a bright-red costume decorated with sequins and sparkly beading, Davuluri performed a Bollywood fusion dance for her talent portion of the competition and looked radiant in a deep-yellow gown during the evening-wear segment. But when she was asked about the revelation last week by the television personality Julie Chen that she had plastic surgery on her eyes to make them look less Asian, Davuluri's answer may have been what won her the crown.

She noted that one's diversity should be celebrated and that she was personally opposed to plastic surgery to alter an ethnic appearance. That seemed to impress the judges and the audience, which gave her rousing cheers and applause.


Name: Nina Davuluri

Age: 24

Hometown: Syracuse, N.Y.

Education: Graduate of University of Michigan with a Bachelor of Science degree in brain behavior cognitive science.

Career ambition:: To become a physician; unsure of speciality.

Favorite food: Enchiladas. Says she has been addicted to them since age 4.

How she arrived at her pageant platform: For many of her school years, Davuluri was the only child of Indian descent in her class. She often found herself correcting stereotypes about her culture involving arranged marriages and cow worship. She thought "Celebrating Diversity through Cultural Competency" was a good place to start.

What you may not know: Her father is a physician. She has struggled with bulimia and has spoken about overcoming the eating disorder.

Pretty and smart: She is a straight-A student who has won the Michigan Merit Award and a National Honor Society award.


Social media's democratic nature allowed racist venom to fly Sunday night. B4.

Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or jurgo@phillynews.com. Read the "Downashore" blog at inquirer.com/downashore.

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