San Leandro, Calif. — Actress, model and filmmaker Emily Shah of New Jersey became the first woman of Indian American descent to strut the Miss U.S.A. stage when she participated in the Miss U.S.A. pageant at the Baton Rouge River Center in Baton Rouge, La., June 8.

Nia Sanchez of Nevada was crowned with the top honor at the event, which was telecast live on NBC. Sanchez now goes on to represent the United States in the Miss Universe competition.

Shah was eliminated just before the Top 10 contestants were announced, putting her into the pageant’s Top 20. “I wanted to thank everyone for their love & support ... your messages have been so inspiring and have touched my heart throughout this journey,” she tweeted.

In an e-mail to India-West June 10, she explained why she’s using the medium of pageants to make a mark. “Pageantry helps women find themselves, what they stand for, and the change they can make with their title,” she said.

The beauty queen, who is also the first Miss U.S.A. contestant of Gujarati descent and the youngest Miss New Jersey U.S.A. at age 19, has modeled Sherri Hill designs in several pageants, and she made no exception here, donning a bright red lace form-fitting cocktail dress that hit at mid-thigh — accessorized with a feathered Mardi Gras mask, in keeping with the festive Louisiana theme of the venue’s host state. Shah also appeared in the swimsuit round wearing a Kandice Pelletier white two-piece suit featuring bold sheer cutout panels.

But beauty is only one part of the whole package, as Shah has learned over her years as a pageant champ and contestant.

“Pageants build a lot of character,” she told India-West. “They allow you to dig deep into the person you are and what you stand for.

“For example, the interview portion of pageantry is just an opinion. There is no right or wrong answer, as long as you have a valid and politically correct answer with support to prove your opinion.

“While prepping for this part of the pageant, I cogitated my opinions on every single current event. My perception of who I am and what I stand for became clearer every day.” 

Pageant founder Donald Trump appeared at the event, along with a slate of 12 celebrity judges including aspiring actress Rumer Willis, former Miss U.S.A. Carole Gist and NBC33 news anchor Jeanne Burns. Country duo Florida Georgia Line, rapper Nelly and Mexican pop band Camila provided musical entertainment.

Shah, the daughter of Hollywood film executive Prashant Shah, is busy behind the scenes in the movie industry as a stunt artist, assistant to first and second-unit directors, and production assistant. She appeared in two Bollywood films as a child artist, and has studied various forms of dance and performing arts from a young age, competing in the Miss Teen New Jersey World 2010 pageant as well.

Shah has been involved with several charities, but focuses most of her attention on the Alicia Rose Victorious Foundation, for which she serves as ambassador. The ARVF works with pediatric cancer patients and helps to build hospital lounges stocked with video games and other entertainment during their treatment.

“I call this ‘The Power of The Crown,’” Shah told India-West. “With your title, you are able to promote and bring awareness to various charities.”

Now that she’s nailed the pageant world, she wants to focus on Hollywood action films. Miss Universe 2004 Sushmita Sen was Shah’s inspiration to join pageants, she said.

Shah told the Times of India, “To be a better action actor, I worked as assistant to the stunt director in movies like ‘Captain America,’ ‘Fast and Furious 7’ and even worked directly as assistant to Clint Eastwood in ‘Jersey Boys.’

“For me, modeling isn’t a launch pad for acting. I want to be a stunt actor like Angelina Jolie’s character in Hollywood movie ‘Salt,’” she added.

“I firmly believe that to be good in front of camera, it is best to learn behind-the-camera skills.”

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