Nina Davuluri, a 24-year-old with plans to be a doctor, was crowned the first Miss America of Indian descent Sunday night in a competition that marked a new era for the pageant in more ways than one.
Davuluri, competing as Miss New York, electrified the crowd and dazzled judges in Boardwalk Hall, performing a Bollywood-style dance in a traditional costume and strutting in a lemon-yellow cap sleeved gown. She was the first Miss America crowned in Atlantic City in six years and the second consecutive Miss New York, taking over from Mallory Hytes Hagan, who pinned the crown atop Davuluri’s head as she cried in disbelief.
In a Boardwalk Hall press conference after the pageant, Davuluri said she plans to use the $50,000 in Miss America scholarship money to go to medical school. Monday morning, she’ll hit the beach for the traditional morning-after frolic in the Atlantic City surf.
Even before Davuluri’s win, it had been a pageant of firsts: The first time three Miss Americas were crowned in a single year, due to scheduling changes as the pageant moved back from Las Vegas. In another first, Miss California, Crystal Lee, was first runner up, marking the first time two women of Asian descent topped the Miss America field.
And Miss Kansas, Theresa Vail, became the first contestant to openly flaunt tattoos rather than cover them up during the competition. Vail, an Army National Guard sargeant, only took up pageants in the last year, but rocketed to fame and won the America’s Choice fan voting. She made it through the Top 12 before being eliminated.
Miss Florida, Myrrhanda Jones, spent the evening in flat shoes and a bedazzled leg brace, owing to a ligament injury suffered during rehearsals. Jones proved a favorite with the Boardwalk Hall crowd, which booed and jeered when she was cut off for talking too long in the question-and-answer session.
The crowd, with many women in gowns and men in evening suits and ready to celebrate, may have also been to blame for an awkward moment when Davuluri didn’t hear hostess Lara Spencer announcing her and had to be beckoned three times to the stage for her dance performance.
Last week, NewsWorks introduced readers to Chris Saltalamacchio, a pageant consultant who had five clients competing in the Miss America pageant. Two of them — Miss Connecticut and Miss Maryland — made it through the Top 15.
On social media, the Syracuse, New York-born Davuluri’s win caused elation among Indian-Americans, but also touched off the now-predictable racist backlash on Twitter. There had also been some pre-pageant drama involving Davuluri, when a recording surfaced in which she reportedly called Hagan fat. Davuluri, who has battled bulimia and shed weight to compete in pageants, denied trash-talking Hagan and said the two are friends.
Miss America returned this year to the place where it began back in 1921, when 16-year-old Margaret Gorman won in what was then a decidedly small-time affair. What began as a stunt to attract tourists to the Shore in the fall has evolved into a massive television event, where 53 contestants battle for a year-long job that can involve up to 20,000 miles of travel each month.
The Associated Press contributed to this report