During an evening that celebrated beauty and diversity, 20-year-old Miss New Jersey 2017 Chhavi Verg – who was among the top fan favorites – was crowned Miss USA 2017 first runner-up May 14 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
The Indian American student, of Edison, N.J., who bested 49 other contestants but ultimately lost the title to Miss District of Columbia Kára McCullough during a night full of glitz and glamor, ended up winning the popular vote on social media with her phenomenal poise, elegance and intelligence. The second runner-up was Miss Minnesota Meridith Gould.
A student at Rutgers University studying marketing and Spanish, Verg is a total fitness freak, a certified personal trainer, and a Bharatanatyam dancer. She also runs a health/fitness website, which features vegan/vegetarian recipes and other healthy living tips and tricks.
When asked if affordable health care for all U.S. citizens was a privilege or a right, McCullough, who, as a scientist, works at the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, referred to it as a privilege, disappointing many.
“I’m definitely going to say it’s a privilege,” said McCullough. “As a government employee, I am granted health care and I see firsthand that for one to have health care you need to have jobs, so therefore we need to continue to cultivate this environment, that we’re given the opportunity to have health care as well as jobs to all the American citizens worldwide.”
In the same round, Verg, looking resplendent in a black sequined gown, scored full marks for her answer on the pros and cons of social media. She also used the platform to address the faceless demon called cyberbullying.
“With social media, I believe it has given us so much power in this world, but with great power comes great responsibility and I have seen both ends of social media,” said Verg. “For me, it has been one of the most empowering experiences because I have met so many empowered women, but at the same time, I have also been a victim of cyberbullying like many of the contestants with me standing on this stage. Social media is again a privilege, it’s something you have to be careful of, you can’t just say anything just because you are anonymous, and once we realize that, that’s when we can truly live in a better world for everyone.”
After these answers, both the contestants moved on to the top three spots, where they were asked the same question, “What do you consider feminism to be, and do you consider yourself a feminist?”
McCullough said: “I don’t want to call myself a feminist,” she said. “Women, we are just as equal as men, especially in the workplace.”
Verg, who is strong proponent of female empowerment through education, said: “Feminism is striving for equality and I do consider myself a feminist. I think it’s a misconception when people believe that feminism is women being better than men. But it’s really not. It’s a fight for equality. And we need to realize that if we want a stable society, a better future for every single individual, we need to be equal. And that’s why I advocate for education for women, because women are still held back in places of the world. They still don’t have that right to their independence, that right to their equality, all because of education. And once we do take that step, I believe that an equal world will be a better world.”
Though McCullough’s answers may have helped her clinch the crown, they also sparked a row on social media, with netizens mostly criticizing her for both her answers, and at the same time lauding Verg for hers.
“#MissUSA Miss DC just lost me with that answer...Affordable healthcare is a privilege? Girl bye,” wrote one user on Twitter.
Some were left scratching their heads at the decision. “I’m still trying to figure out how D.C. won #MissUSA, she dead said healthcare was a privilege and she doesn’t even understand what feminism is,” wrote another.
Few went as far as saying that “Miss New Jersey was robbed” of her title.
The beauty pageant this year included five women who immigrated to the U.S. at a young age and now as citizens hoped to represent the nation on a global stage. Verg and the women representing Florida, North Dakota, Hawaii, Connecticut and New Jersey told The Associated Press this week they have faced challenges and opportunities as immigrants.
Verg told The Associated Press days ahead of the competition, which until 2015 was owned by President Donald Trump, that she and her parents immigrated from India to the U.S. with only $500 in their pockets when she was four years old. Her first winter she did not have a winter coat and the family struggled to adjust.
“I want to show Americans that the definition of what it means to be American is changing,” Verg said. “It’s not just one face. There are many different people who are Americans, and I feel like Asian-Americans often-times are left out of the conversation.”
The show, held at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center on the Las Vegas Strip, opened with a performance of Cirque du Soleil’s “Michael Jackson ONE” show. Country music singer-songwriter Brett Eldredge rendered his new single, “The Long Way,” as the contestants walked the ramp in their evening gowns. The event, hosted by Julianne Hough, Ashley Graham and Terrence J, also featured musical guest Pitbull.