Miss America Nina Davuluri On Cultural Appropriation & A Year Of Travel

60SecondsWith_PostninaslidePhotographed by Holly E. Thomas.
When former Miss New York Nina Davuluri scooped the title of Miss America earlier this year, some Internet creeps tried to rain on her parade. But, Davuluri handled it all like a champ, and headed out on her year-long national tour with a message about understanding and embracing other cultures. (And, yes, she's actually on the road for an entire year.) We got the chance to sit down with her and discuss her feelings on cultural appropriation, her secrets for traveling without wrecking your skin, and why she's a scholar first and a pageant queen second.
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Tell us a little bit about your social campaign, and how you're using social media in a positive way.
"I launched this campaign this past year, when I was Miss Syracuse, even before I won Miss New York. It's called Circles of Unity. Nationally I've been able to promote it as Miss America, and I've asked people to send me their thoughts, pictures, or videos about what they think it means to be 'culturally aware,' and use #CirclesOfUnity. So I really hope that creates a positive and enlightening discussion via social media."
It seems like we're all talking about cultural appropriation, and what it means — people are upset that Miley is twerking, or that Rihanna got a henna tattoo on her hand. How does that figure into what you're trying to do?
"I think it's absolutely wonderful when people are interested in learning and engaging themselves in different cultures, and that's why I promote cultural competency. It's not simply about opening a discussion about race, because that hasn't proven to be that effective. It's really about engaging others with hands-on activities within different cultures. So, whether that's the henna tattoo or learning a different language or trying a different cuisine or dance, those are ways to get people to dive deeper into different cultures. And that's really how you bring awareness to what that heritage is all about."
It's interesting that we have the extremely negative examples of cultural appropriation, and then these gray areas, where the person is doing something because they think it's cool, but it's still considered offensive to people of that heritage.
"Well, in terms of trendiness — that's what you're referring to. I think there was some music video with Selena Gomez, where she was wearing the bindi. For me, personally — I can't speak on behalf of everyone — I've always welcomed questions, because I've had so many misconceptions and stereotypes growing up about my culture. People would ask me, 'What does the red dot mean?' or 'Do you worship cows?' or if I'm going to have an arranged marriage. The list goes on, and many of these remarks aren't meant to be malicious — they're just due to ignorance, so I welcome asking questions. A lot of times it's just curiosity, and you can't expect to dispel those barriers or stereotypes if you can't answer them and open that discussion."
You're traveling all year, and you don't have a home — how do you handle that?
"People can tell you about it, because as titleholders, we understand that if you are to win Miss America, you live out of two suitcases. But no one can prepare you for the job until you start doing it. It's been very busy — I'm usually not in a place longer than 48 hours, and then on to the next one. But I get to travel all across America and then some, so it's a very exciting year."
So, what's in your two suitcases?
"I have one with all my professional clothes provided by our wardrobe sponsor, Joseph Ribkoff, and then I have a personal suitcase with all the hair, makeup, accessories, and goodies you can imagine."
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Since you're doing all this traveling, and most of us are getting ready to travel for the holidays — any advice for how to crisscross the country like a pro?
"Always drink water, constantly. In terms of my skin, I always keep makeup-removing wipes in my carry-on, and just before I get on the flight, I'll take all my makeup off and just moisturize. That's really helped me in that area. [Thank goodness for R.E.I.G.N.’s Silky Face Potion, Plush Night Cream, and my favorite, the nourishing Vivid Eye Cream.] And dry shampoo!"
And do you have any rituals or special things you use when you travel? "I have a Tempur-Pedic travel pillow — it's amazing. I actually lost it, and invested in replacing it."
Anything else that's on your to-do list while you're Miss America, aside from your social media campaign?
"As Miss America, I'm also the Goodwill Ambassador for Children's Miracle Network hospitals, so I'll be visiting hospitals across the country. I'm also promoting STEM education, specifically for women — that's science, technology, engineering, and math — so I'll be working with the Department of Education to build that campaign. I'll also be speaking to schools about my platform, especially to young women — that's one of my favorite things."
Tell us a bit about what you were doing before the pageant process.
"I started competing in the organization when I was 16, and I knew that I had to pay for half of my college education — my parents were generous enough to offer to pay for the other half. So, I won the title of Miss Michigan's Outstanding Teen through the Miss America's Outstanding Teen program, which is meant to be a feeder into the Miss America program. I won $25,000 in scholarship money through that organization, and so with that money and the help of my parents, I was able to graduate debt free from University of Michigan. I took a five-year hiatus from the Miss America organization — eventually, I would like to go to medical school, so I started competing again for scholarship reasons, and just won $50,000 as Miss America and another $10,000 as Miss New York."
That's incredible! So, no big shopping sprees — it's all going to tuition?
"No shopping sprees! Although I might have to hit the Nordstrom Rack here. I cannot buy things that are not on sale."
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Any other favorite places to shop, since you're a big bargain shopper?
"I've found some great things at T.J. Maxx and Marshalls, especially if you go to stores in bigger cities. That was a big perk of living in New York."
How do you stay healthy and in shape while you're traveling?
"It's really difficult for me, because when you're on the road all the time you have to pick and choose what you eat. You're always eating out. You're always being taken out to nice dinners and banquets, so it's not always the healthiest food options. On top of that, with my schedule, I've chosen to sleep whenever I can, instead of anything else. I'm trying to set a realistic goal, because when I first started, I was like 'Great! I'm going to be really committed and focused and work out,' but with this job, you just can't do that. So now, I try to get in a half-hour workout three times a week, a mix of cardio and weights. I've always focused on interval training and found it more effective for me. But also just focusing on healthy eating. There are some days where I allow myself to indulge, and that's absolutely okay."
What's a typical day like for you?
"It's never the same. One day, I can be flipping pancakes at IHOP, and the next day, I'm meeting the president. Sometimes it's 5 a.m. media tours; one interview after another all day; a visit for Chidren's Miracle Network Hospitals. I just went back to Michigan to speak at the business school, my alma mater, and now I'm here for the Thurgood Marshall charity gala. It's a wide array of things. One of my favorites is that I'm going to Michigan for the football game against Ohio State. So you just never know."
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