Nina Davuluri, the first Miss America with Indian roots, is keen to spread the message that the colour of your skin is not what’s important – it’s skills and talent that matter, says Lavina Melwani
She may have an American accent and passport, but Nina Davuluri – the first Miss America of Indian descent – is a celebrity many second-generation Indian expats across the world, including the Middle East, can easily relate to.
The youngest daughter of doctors Sheila Ranjani and Davuluri Koteshwara Choudhary, who emigrated to New York from Andhra Pradesh in southern India in 1981, “to chase the dream”, felt anything but the all-American girl growing up.
In fact, she was the only Indian girl in her class after the family moved to Michigan. “I was often mistaken for native American,” Nina, 24, says during an interview.
“So it was always a constant struggle of identity for me trying to assimilate with the American culture while holding on to my Indian roots.”
That meant studying hard, being there for her sister Meena, a medical student who is 18 months older, learning Indian dance forms, music, the Telugu language and visiting India regularly to keep in touch with the extended family there.
“My parents imbibed in me great Indian values, which kept me grounded,” she says. I truly love all things Indian.”
That’s no doubt why she chose to perform a fusion Bollywood dance Dhoom Taana from the Shah Rukh Khan film Om Shanti Om in the talent round of the contest held at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
“I love Bollywood films and watch them regularly,” Nina says. She found the dance steps easy to master as she’s trained in Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi – two classical dance forms of India. She choreographed the two-minute routine with the help of Nakul Dev Mahajan, a popular dancer and choreographer in California known for his work in the hit TV show So You think You can Dance.
But while her dance steps wowed the judges, many people were surprised – and some even shocked – that a woman who doesn’t have regular American looks – blue eyes, fair skin and blonde hair – but rather almond-shaped dark eyes, a dusky complexion and bruette tresses had been crowned Miss America.
In fact, as soon as the tiara was placed on Nina’s head a debate erupted on social media about whether she would have ever made
it to the finals of Miss India.
One of the tweets pointedly asked, “The question is whether a girl as dark as Nina could possibly have won Miss India? Knowing [Indians’] fascination for fair skin, probably not.”
Nina handled the comments with grace, saying, “It is really unfortunate that immediately after I won it I was surrounded by so much turmoil, but it just went on to show how timely and relevant my platform – promoting diversity through cultural competency – was.”
She admits that in India “the more fair-skinned you are, the more beautiful you are”. Many people in India, she says, “spend tons of money on skin-lightening creams, bleaches, products…”.
Keen to spread awareness about the right perspective of beauty, Nina says she is eager to connect with a campaign called Dark Is Beautiful
“to underscore the fact that the colour of skin is not what is important but one’s skills and talents. It would be a wonderful message for younger girls to tell them that regardless of how dark or light they are, it doesn’t have to matter.
“I really want to help effect a change in beauty standards,” she says, adding it was a reason that as a contestant in Miss America, she chose to champion her cultural diversity. “Miss America’s branding is so associated with the girl next door, which has meant blonde hair and blue eyes with a few exceptions, but the girl next door must evolve as the country evolves. When I was younger I wanted to fit in, but I was aware growing up that I didn’t fit that mould, and I wanted to help make a change that meant young girls wouldn’t feel like that.”
Nina grew up watching Miss America but believed that as the daughter of immigrants she’d never be able to stand on the podium “because I didn’t look a certain way or because I didn’t fit the model of what was up there on the screen”.
She says she never felt she could achieve this title but was drawn to competing because of the scholarship money that was offered for further education. “It was also really about trying to change the image of who Miss America was,” says Nina. “Now there are so many young girls who can say, ‘Wow, Miss America actually looks like me!’
“My platform is something I have essentially been promoting my entire life because I grew up surrounded by so many stereotypes and misconceptions.
“But for every one negative tweet, post or comment I received [after being crowned], I received hundreds if not thousands of positive encouragement and support from people across the world. To have that global discussion take place and to spark that discussion is really rather incredible.”
More than six months after being crowned Miss America, Nina is still savouring the life of glitz and glamour but is also slowly coming to terms with the punishing schedule that goes with being crowned the most beautiful woman in the US. “It is a lot of hard work,” she says. “I am on a plane almost every other day and travel on average 20,000 miles a month. So I have racked up quite a few points on my Air Miles. I sleep on the plane... often that’s the only place I get to catch up on my sleep. It is exhausting.”
As the official National Goodwill Ambassador for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, and the official spokesperson for several beauty and fashion labels, she has to travel across the US promoting the brands and doing her bit for charity.
She is busy meeting state leaders and corporate heads discussing plans about her mission, which is promoting diversity and lending her name and face to charity initiatives.
“I had the pleasure of having a conversation with President Barack Obama [for an event for the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals] in the Oval Office today!” an ecstatic Nina tweeted immediately after the meeting in October. She said Obama showed keen interest in her plans and the organisations she was working with. “He was so genuine.
I think that’s when my parents really thought I had a legitimate job...
after that encounter.”
For young Indian women around the globe, Nina has been a role model, showing them that their dreams can come true. Born in Syracuse, New York, she moved with her family to Oklahoma and then to Michigan, when she was 10.
“It was all about the American Dream – to provide opportunities for my sister Meena and I that they didn’t necessarily have themselves,” says Nina about her parents.
“And it really worked out in more ways than one because with this title and role and everything that has happened throughout my life, essentially it is a small part of my own American dream.”
Nina, who attended the University of Michigan, graduating with a degree in brain behaviour and cognitive science, has also won the Michigan Merit Award. Her ambition is one that delights most Indian parents – to become a physician.
Nina’s road to the Miss America finals started when she first competed in the Miss America teen programme. Winning the $25,000 in scholarship money that helped her graduate debt free from the University of Michigan she went on to college and once again turned to beauty pageants as a way of financing her education.
She competed twice for the
Miss New York title and won the second time, going on to compete for the Miss America title.
“I won a total of $91,000 in scholarship money from various pageants. It is really incredible.”
But the final was something she will always remember, where she was dressed in a gorgeous yellow gown inspired by one of her favourite Disney movies, Beauty and the Beast.
“Belle is my favourite Disney princess. I dressed up as Belle for three consecutive Halloweens when
I was younger because I was obsessed with her yellow dress. So my gown was very similar to that.”
One of the most rewarding parts of the job is interacting with people, especially children, Nina says. In her role with the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals she meets young patients. “Many times these are all very young children who have many diseases and life-threatening illnesses,” she says. “They have been through dozens of treatments, and in and out of hospital. All they see is that a princess has walked into the room for the day and to see that genuine, heartfelt smile on these children’s faces is so touching.
“When I have a parent come up to me and say, ‘My child hasn’t smiled in weeks or months and she did today because you were here,’ – it is really hard to put that into an emotional context or to describe that in words, but it is one of the best parts of being in this role.
“If you can just take their minds off what they are going through for
a minute, it really goes a long way for them. I have done everything from reading books to them, to just speaking with them, to a radio talk show in the hospital and had them call in from their room, which was really fun.”Nina wants to use all her experience as Miss America to fulfill her dream – as a psychiatrist.
“Education is really important to survive now in the world we live in,” she says. “It is not only about getting a college degree. You really need to have a master’s degree and I just won so much scholarship money and I am going to put that to good use.”
What’s been the hardest part about her win? Nina feels you cannot please everyone and there always will be detractors. “If it is not my race, it is something else that I have to explain to people. And to just wake up every morning and to understand that the best thing I can do is be the best. Nina I can be and not try to be anyone else but to stay true to myself. It is something that I have really tried to live by this year. But it is hard.”
Nina says her biggest role model
is her sister Meena. “My parents tell me that ever since I was young I would always do everything like her and she is my best friend. On hectic days when I only have the energy to talk to one person on the phone it is most likely to be my sister.”
When she entered the Miss America contest, Nina was warned that if she was serious about winning, she must change her talent presentation because Bollywood would never, ever win.
“It was something that I struggled with but there was no question that my talent was going to be an Indian dance,” she says. “I have been doing it my entire life, but more than that it was a part of me, it was who I was.
“I knew that if I was going to win Miss America it had to be on my terms and in my way.
“I stuck to it and to have it actually culminate in the way that it did is really empowering.”
Courtesy : Friday/Gulf News