HACKENSACK, N.J. | Nina Davuluri is living proof of her assertion that “the girl next door is evolving.”

She’s the first Indian-American to win the Miss America crown, an honor previously reserved for faces very unlike hers.

Her beauty-queen triumph brought out ugliness in others. Moments after a tiara was placed on her head, racist backlash began on social media — with some, apparently ignorant of her ethnicity, calling her a Muslim with ties to al-Qaida. Her family is Hindu. Others said she isn’t “American enough” for the title.

But the daughter of immigrants from Andhra Pradesh state in India highlighted her heritage with a Bollywood dance during the competition and handled the comments gracefully, saying she “will rise above” bigotry. Sadly, she said, she had anticipated the negative reaction.

At the root of most bigotry is misunderstanding, said Davuluri, who speaks with winning earnestness and confidence: “I grew up hearing a lot of stereotypes about my culture. A lot of the questions they asked me weren’t malicious. They were out of ignorance. I think it’s important to educate people about different cultures around the world.”

Davuluri, 24, grew up watching pageants on TV, assuming she had the wrong look to ever be one of the competing beauties. Now, she sees herself as evidence that America is more tolerant of diversity. Being the first Indian-American to win the Miss New York title and the Miss America crown is a powerful way to convey the need for that tolerance, she said.

“To have a voice is very powerful,” she said. “I’m not going to say that beauty isn’t important, but what’s more important is promoting that well-rounded representative of what young Americans are today. And if she’s also talented and intelligent, then being beautiful is just icing on the cake.”

This year’s pageant saw diversity in many ways: Miss Iowa’s Nicole Kelly was born without a forearm, and Theresa Vail of Kansas bore tattoos and is a National Guard sergeant working toward a pilot’s license. There also were five Asian-Americans, a historical milestone.

The path to the Miss America crown isn’t just about glitz and glamour and finding the perfect shade of lipstick. Davuluri, a straight-A student, said it has been hard work. “Essentially, I’ve been preparing for this my entire life. I’ve gone through the education and was involved in my community and worked on my platform.”

Her daily routine as Miss America includes “being able to speak to people about my platform — anyone from kindergartners to college students to senators and congressmen and the press. You have to be well-rounded educationally.”

Strutting onstage in stilettos in hopes of winning a crown may seem outdated and sexist, but Davuluri defies the “airhead” stereotype. The University of Michigan graduate majored in brain behavior and cognitive science and plans to attend medical school. She signed up for pageants to get scholarships. In total, she’s won $90,000 toward schooling.

“These are all intelligent, accomplished and beautiful women,” she said of competitors. “We are all paying for college and going on to graduate education.”

Davuluri’s story also isn’t the fairy tale one would expect from this picture-perfect face. She struggled with bulimia in college and was 50 pounds heavier than she is now.

“Thankfully, I was able to reach out to my sister,” who helped through treatment and counseling, she said. Today, she is healthy.

“For me it was learning how to be balanced emotionally, socially and spiritually as well.”

But she advises anyone going through such an experience to find someone “you can trust who has your best interests at heart.”

These days, working hard at being Miss America, she is rarely at her Syracuse, N.Y., home. “I’m on the road and live out of a suitcase. It’s a full-time job.”

Her duties include public speaking and serving as National Goodwill Ambassador for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. She also is spokeswoman for STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

“I travel 20,000 miles a month,” she said, “going to speaking engagements at colleges and schools promoting a cause I believe in.”

Visit The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) at www.NorthJersey.com. Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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