Here she is, the Miss America you don’t know

Story highlights

Nina Davuluri is the first Miss America winner of Indian descent

Davuluri ran on a platform of "celebrating diversity through cultural competency"

It was a challenge to live her platform at home, she says

Davuluri: "Assimilation has to happen from both sides, it can't be one-sided."

CNN —  

Nina Davuluri changed the face of the American girl next door after she became the first Miss America of Indian descent.

Her historic win introduced Bollywood dance into the talent portion of the contest that, up until 60 years ago, required contestants to be in “good health and of the white race.”

But not everyone appreciated the history she was making.

Negative responses on social media made headlines after her win. Davuluri says she expected some of that reaction. After all, she faced that when she won Miss New York, too.

“[F]or every negative comment or post or tweet that I received, I received hundreds and thousands of words of encouragement and support,” said Davuluri, a graduate of the University of Michigan. “And that’s still very true, even in my interactions in this past month on the road with various people, just so many positive, positive remarks.”

Growing up in a predominantly white Midwest town, she had become accustomed to answering questions about arranged marriages, cow worship and the meaning of “red dots on foreheads.”

“I was raised in a very Indian household,” she said. “And so for my parents it was really difficult for them to assimilate with the American culture. And that’s what I encourage – assimilation has to happen from both sides, it can’t be one-sided.”

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She has learned that lesson in her personal life, like when she introduced her traditional parents, whose marriage was arranged, to the boyfriend she had been dating for more than a year.

“I mean, I’m 24 years old. I’m a grown woman,” she said. “It came down to the point where I said you can either accept this and be a part of it and … take the opportunity to get to know him, or we can just pretend that it’s not happening. The choice is yours.”

She says she is proud of how her own parents have adapted. Now she logs 20,000 airline miles per month traveling around the country sharing her platform on how to celebrate diversity through cultural competency by asking questions and learning about other cultures, and also to promote awareness of STEM education. In this edited conversation, she took some time to speak with CNN about why medical school seemed less risky than competing for Miss America, and how she was challenged to live her platform in her own household.

CNN: The programs you’ve worked with have focused on children in kindergarten through junior high about to address diversity through cultural competency. Is all hope lost for adults? What have you found, particularly in the aftermath of the negative reaction to your being crowned, is the best way to address the topic with adults?

Davuluri: I certainly hope that not all hope is lost, and I don’t think it is, because my parents are a living example of that. One of the hardest things that I experienced was really living the platform in my own home. And I say that because, my parents – you know – I come from a very Indian household, and the reality of the situation is that you simply cannot raise your children in America and expect them to be 100% Indian. That’s not possible. And it shouldn’t have to be, because we’re so influenced by our peers and our community and people around us.

Personally, my parents had an arranged marriage. And so, the idea of dating is difficult for any parent, but especially more so for mine, because they never experienced it themselves.

I’ve been dating a gentleman for a little while … and it wasn’t until I had been seeing him for a year-and-a-half that I didn’t even tell my parents! And I really, really wish that I’d opened that conversation sooner than I did, because it really made – I mean, it sounds really cheesy, but it really made us have a stronger relationship.

I’m not saying that it was any walk in the park, because it was a very difficult conversation to have. But at the end of the day, your parents want you to be happy. And so I’m really thankful that I did it, but it’s still a constant struggle in my own home as well.

CNN: When you say constant struggle, how did that manifest? Was there a “rule” to not date, or was there just an expectation?

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    Davuluri: It was just an expectation. We’d never talked about it …

    For me, med school was almost the easy path, I suppose. It was expected. It was something that was expected of me. I was just supposed to do it.

    But becoming Miss America, entering this organization, was something that gave me a sense of validity that I had never had, because it was solely my own, and I put my own name on it.

    And I’m really proud to say that it’s OK to not fit the mold, or break the stereotype or whatever it is, and stick to your gut.

    CNN: What do you think was difficult about it for your parents?

    Davuluri: I think it was more of the fact that in my parents’ mind, well, first you have to go to school, and then you have to go to med school and then you get married. And in my mind, I’m like, well Prince Charming doesn’t just show up on my doorstep whenever I’m ready to meet him!

    CNN: So would you consider your boyfriend Prince Charming?

    Davuluri, laughing: Well, I didn’t go that far. He’s a great guy.

    CNN: In the South Asian community, there was pride about your win. There was also discussion about the notion that due to your skin tone, it’s unlikely you would win a beauty contest in India. How do you respond to that? Was that something you heard?

    Davuluri: I totally get it. When I was little it was always, “Don’t go out into the sun, cause you’re going to get too dark.” I’d go to India on average every year growing up and (some of my family) would say, “Oh, you’d be so much more beautiful if you were fair” or lighter. So I get it from that standpoint.

    But I also experienced both sides of it, because when I was in school, … everyone was like, “Oh my goodness, you have such beautiful skin, you’re so tan, you’re so beautiful.”

    So, it’s just the idea of wanting what we can’t have. Just these standards of beauty that society says that they should be or thinks that they should be. I guess another silver lining is that these little girls in India can see (you don’t only have to be fair-skinned) to be beautiful.

    I hope that that can be some sort of symbol in that sense.

    CNN: How do you define beauty?

    Davuluri: Is it cheesy if I say from the inside?

    It is so true and I think that the biggest thing for me, being in this role is, regardless of the physical beauty, is that I want it to come from the inside.

    When I meet someone, I want it to be that genuine, interested person and having a genuine conversation. … A smile goes a long way and being interested in that person you’re speaking with is what true beauty is. And just showing that you care about someone is what I hope to accomplish this year.