Nina Davuluri wins Miss America, then faces critics, in Bollywood style (+video)
Nina Davuluri win is a tribute to her joyful performance and marks the growing visibility and cultural influence of Indian-Americans. Of criticism that she is, somehow, not American, she says: 'I have to rise above that.'
Showing off her Bollywood talents in a jewel-bespeckled crimson and turquoise lehenga choli outfit, and dancing barefoot with a set of ghungroo anklet bells, Nina Davuluri became the first woman of Indian descent to wear the Miss America crown.Skip to next paragraph
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It was the kind of performance the talent competition at the 94-year-old pageant has rarely seen, and it brought the New York-born contestant a standing ovation. But almost immediately after last year’s winner Mallory Hagen put the Miss America crown on Ms. Davuluri’s head, attention turned toward her ethnic heritage.
Thousands of comments began zapping through the Twitterverse, many of which disparaged Davuluri as an Arab or a Muslim – or as somehow not American.
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"I have to rise above that," said Davuluri of the online comments during her post-pageant press conference. "I always viewed myself as first and foremost American." The newly crowned Miss America was born in Syracuse, N.Y., and she became an honors student at the University of Michigan, where she earned a degree in brain behavior and cognitive science.
But Davaluri’s win also highlights the growing visibility and cultural influence of immigrants from South Asia – the blanket term the US Census uses to refer to one of the most populous and culturally diverse areas in the world. Today more than 3.4 million people with family ties to this region reside in the US, including those from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, as well as Sri Lanka and Nepal. Of these, 80 percent are of Indian heritage, and nearly 3 of 4 were born outside the US.
And while Indian Americans have long achieved success in corporate boardrooms and high elected office, Davuluri’s crown carried a special significance.
“For years now, there have been special pageants for second-generation Indian-Americans because they never thought they'd find mainstream success in things like Miss America,” says S. Mitra Kalita, ideas editor at Quartz and author of “Suburban Sahibs: Three immigrant families and their passage from India to America.” “So Nina Davuluri's win is significant and a sign of mainstream acceptance in America."
“And it’s noteworthy that she danced to a Bollywood song,” Ms. Kalita continues, “because it's an assertion of identity from another place. And yet that's what makes her even more American.”
(The song she danced to was Dhoom Taana, from the Bollywood movie Om Shanti Om, a popular parody of Bollywood films. Her dance was a fusion of Bharatanatyam and Bollywood dance.)
Indeed, Davuluri, who titled her pageant platform as "celebrating diversity through cultural competency," recognized this significance, saying at her press conference, "I'm so happy this organization has embraced diversity. I'm thankful there are children watching at home who can finally relate to a new Miss America.”