When 24-year-old Miss New York Nina Davuluri was crowned the country’s top beauty queen Sept. 15 at the Miss America 2014 pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the news was met with pride and congratulations from millions of fans on the Internet — as well as shockingly mean-spirited racial backlash, and some thought-provoking comments on what it all means from commentators here and in India. A representative from the Miss America pageant did not respond to India-West’s request for a comment by press time.
Davuluri is the first Indian American to hold the title, as well as the first Indian American to be crowned Miss New York. The elegant and self-possessed native of Syracuse, New York, is also brainy: she was on the Dean’s List at the University of Michigan, where she earned a B.S. degree in brain behavior and cognitive science; was a winner of the Michigan Merit Award; and made it to the National Honor Society.
Brilliance aside, her performance onstage at the Boardwalk Hall Arena included a brief promenade in high heels and a zebra-print bikini as well as an appearance in a canary-yellow gown with a plunging neckline.
But the aspect of her performance that has garnered the most attention was her Bollywood-fusion dance to the song “Dhoom Taana,” a high-energy display of classical and contemporary Indian dance styles choreographed by Nakul Dev Mahajan. (See separate story.)
Davuluri was born to Telugu parents from Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh, and as a youngster would visit India every other year, studying dance. But her father is a gynecologist and his siblings are in the medical field, while her sister is in medical school, so Daluvuri also feels pulled toward a career in medicine. She is being awarded at least $50,000 in scholarships, which she plans to use for medical school.
Now in stellar physical shape and a fan of healthy eating and exercise, Davuluri had painfully battled obesity and bulimia when she was a teenager. In an interview with the Syracuse Post-Standard, she said she had lost 60 pounds to compete in the Miss New York pageant.
“People who have been overweight, especially women, feel like at a moment’s notice we can go back to where we were,” Davuluri told the paper. “It makes you more sympathetic, more empathetic. You don’t judge. I’ve been there, and if I can pull myself out of where I’ve been, anyone can.”
In a question-and-answer portion of the judging, she was asked how she felt about the recent news that a prominent Asian American female TV anchor admitted to getting plastic surgery years earlier to make her eyes appear rounder. Davuluri said that she’s against plastic surgery, but said people should make their own choices while being confident in their appearances.
Some have noted that Davuluri was quoted in media reports earlier this year as calling fellow Miss New York and Miss America 2013 Mallory Hagan “fat,” but she said that the media reports were false and that the distasteful comment was made by a member of her entourage. “I want to apologize for the awful statements made by people in my [hotel] room ... There were people who claimed to be my supporters and said things I never agreed with, nor supported,” she posted on Facebook.
This year’s Miss America was greeted with a flurry of racist tweets and Internet rants. “I have to rise above that ... I always viewed myself as first and foremost American,” she told the Associated Press.
The level of xenophobia and ignorance was pretty mind-boggling. Here are just two of the comments: BOom, a commenter on the People.com site, wrote, “She’s a beautiful girl no doubt. But an Indian girl being Ms. America is not how it should be … Not surprising though being we have a Muslim for our president.”
Matt Haney (@OneProudHonkie) alleged online: “How can you be Miss AMERICA and look like you should be a gas station clerk or motel owner?”
But her supporters chimed in as well.
Indian American comedian, director and “The Daily Show” contributor Aasif Mandvi tweeted: “US Spelling Bee 2013 winner is also Indian American! Unfortunately racists don’t seem to care.”
Writer Taz Ahmed posted, “I kinda THINK every Desi girl should buy a plastic tiara today from 99 cent store, wear it all day, and JUST SEE WHAT HAPPENS.”
Vasugi Ganeshananthan, author and journalist, tweeted: Those racist Miss America
tweets: because you needed more evidence that we were spending too much on war and not enough on education.”
Standup comic Hari Kondabolu noted in all caps: “CAN WE PLEASE STOP BEING RACIST WHEN WE OBJECTIFY WOMEN?”
The new Miss America will now embark on a year-long national speaking tour, traveling about 20,000 miles per month, to a different city every other day, as she addresses diverse audiences to increase awareness and promote her chosen platform of “celebrating diversity through cultural competency.”
In a press conference after winning the crown, she said, “I’m thankful there are children watching at home who can finally relate to a new Miss America.”