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Talking about her stint on the show, Kanika Lal told India-West that “It felt heartwarming that I was celebrated for being my unique self.”

I’ll cut right to the chase. Winning felt good. It felt magical. And it’s not because of the approval. Or the crown that was placed on my head that declared me “Made in America.” For me, winning was just the reminder that hard work and most importantly, passion, will always triumph over any obstacle. The moment Nina Davuluri said my name, it was as if years of disappointment, rejection, constant struggle and effort into everything I’ve done finally made sense to me. The complete, utter shock I felt would not have felt the same if I hadn’t struggled in the past.

Now, allow me to back up a bit.

I was one of the lucky six contestants to star on Zee TV’s first-ever English-speaking show filmed in the U.S. Specifically Los Angeles. Without auditioning for the show, I received the phone call to join as a reality show contestant. Obviously, packing away everything for one month and living in a house with five strangers was a little intimidating. And because of the reality show format, we weren’t given much information to begin with. But, this was an opportunity I knew I shouldn’t pass up. It would teach me, bring me out of my comfort zone, and most importantly, highlight American women of Southeast Asian background. Instead of letting the anxiety scare me, I allowed it to propel me to jump in and say yes.

Like any journey, there are as many highs as there are lows. Knowing that my every move was documented on television, I tried to not focus on that. I was truly focusing on showcasing who I am and expressing what I think – no sugarcoating. I found that immersing myself into the experience rather than overthinking every single move I usually do on a daily basis helped with the challenges and helped with appreciating the experience.

Although I was the oldest of the girls, and we sometimes had differences, we allowed that to help us learn about each other with an open mind. At the end of the day, you have yourself to support, cherish and love. But support from around you really helps you over the edge. And I can genuinely say we all came together at the end, reflected on how far we’ve come, and embraced whoever was declared winner.

In all honesty, I didn’t think it was me. Maybe it was my history of just missing 1st place. Or how I’ve never thought of myself as a “winner” of anything. But when I found out, I didn’t change thinking of myself. I wanted to change the thinking of others. Other young women who feel they are not good enough. Winner or not, each girl deserved to be on that stage. And so do many more.

That stage represented persistence, confidence, triumph over our inner demons, beauty from the inside and out, and most importantly, love. At that moment, we knew that if we were ever going to survive this life ahead, we have to put ourselves first. Not in a selfish way. But in the way that our bodies, minds and souls thank us for.

Always work to be your better self, but don’t do it for the acceptance of others. Do it because it makes you feel whole. Don’t allow your thoughts to discourage you and say you’re not enough. I know for a fact we are stronger and smarter than we allow ourselves to be. For my younger sister, Suhina, who I hope is reading this. And my younger cousin, Riya, this is for you. And for every young girl who tells themselves “I want.” Or “I wish.” I’m telling you as your friend, you can.

Thank you, Nina, fellow contestants, Zee TV, my parents and siblings, and most importantly, God, for the reminder that the only person in my way is myself. And giving me the awareness to realize that and the strength to overcome. Love to you all and wishing you the luck, love and inner fight to break through and break free.

Kanika Lal

Los Angeles, Calif.

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