Nina Davuluri is halfway out the door of one of the dining rooms at Sequoia in Georgetown on Saturday when the applause begins. She has just finished lunch with members of the Upakar Foundation — an Indian American scholarship foundation, her first nonmedia appearance since taking the Miss America title on Sept. 15 — and since she’s not wearing her crown, it has taken this long for the rest of the room to catch on to who she is.
“Oh!” she says, laughing uncomfortably. “Thank you!”
“Pic?” asks a table of four 20-something female brunchers, pantomiming a camera click. But there’s no time. Davuluri is whisked out of the room and down the hallway, where she receives perhaps one of the most banal perks offered in her weird, wonderful job: premium restroom access.
“Normally, we send everybody upstairs, but you ladies are special,” a server at Sequoia says to Davuluri, 24, ushering her toward a handicapped bathroom. She is with Regina Hopper, a D.C. area consultant and former Miss Arkansas who serves on the board of the Miss America Organization and who is working as Davuluri’s media coordinator this day.
“She’s not just Miss America, she’s Miss New York! That’s what I like,” says another server with a New Yawk accent, as Davuluri closes the door behind her. When she emerges from the restroom, the first server is waiting with a cellphone camera ready, and she obliges him with a photo. Only then does she manage to exit the restaurant (through a gaggle of teenage girls there for a beach-themed bat mitzvah) and get into a black SUV for the four-minute drive to the Kennedy Center’s Utsav, an Indian performing arts festival.
She’d better get used to being whisked away from adoring crowds — Davuluri is on track to becoming one of the most popular Miss Americas in years. After years of stagnation and being criticized as sexist and hopelessly outdated, the Miss America pageant has people paying attention to it again.
“The office was telling me yesterday they can’t keep up with the calls,” Hopper says. “She has inspired more interest than any Miss America we’ve had in a long time.”
The allure of this pretty face comes from an ugly place. As soon as Davuluri was declared the first Indian American titleholder, a chorus of jerks on Twitter expressed their outrage that Miss America could be a “terrorist,” mistakenly saying she was of Middle Eastern origin and making clumsy leaps from there. The racist jokes about 7-Eleven convenience stores seemed to get her heritage right but were no less offensive. As her new job requires, Davuluri handled the onslaught with positivity and poise, and related it back to her platform, conveniently called “Celebrating Diversity Through Cultural Competency.” She’s also launched “Circles of Unity,” a social-media campaign to promote multiculturalism and civil discourse.
“I’ve grown up with so many stereotypes about my culture, I just knew that it was something I needed to advocate for,” says Davuluri, who chose the platform three years ago as a Miss New York contender. “A lot of the remarks weren’t meant to be malicious, but just due to the fact of ignorance.”
And that’s why she’s still in the news, more than a week later. People who couldn’t care less about Miss America — who maybe didn’t even know that the 92-year-old pageant was still televised — may have found themselves tweeting to defend Davuluri’s honor. The controversy has a big silver lining for the Miss America Organization, which is constantly fighting obsolescence in a culture that finds bigger stars in reality TV.
Until Davuluri, generally the only time you heard about a pageant in the past decade was when one of the contestants said something stupid. But the ratings have revived, perhaps in part to our national enthusiasm for tweeting along with live TV. This year’s broadcast on ABC was the best showing since 2004, attracting 10 million viewers during its last half-hour, 18 percent more than last year. People may still question the relevance of beauty pageants with every rhinestone crown that makes its way to a new set of shiny tresses, but the conversation is beginning to change.
Davuluri came seemingly out of nowhere — all the pre-pageant buzz was like an old-timey sideshow, devoted to the proudly tattooed Miss Kansas and the one-armed Miss Iowa — but she went on to charm the judges with her grace, and then America with her post-controversy graciousness. Best of all for the pageant, she’s an aspiring physician, a fact that bolsters the brains-before-beauty message that the organization likes to push.
“I was working on some [medical school] applications last night at 3 a.m.,” she says in the car. “My first choice is SUNY Upstate. So hopefully now that I have Miss America on the résumé, I’m hoping to stand out in a sea of candidates.” (Which, if she weren’t so earnest, would be eye-roll material — of course she’ll stand out.)
The med-school applications must be saved for ungodly hours of the night because Davuluri’s days are packed. She spent the past week doing media appearances — “Good Morning America,” CNN and, at her request, NPR — and meeting with former titleholders, such as the first African American Miss America, Vanessa Williams.
“I think I was so star-struck that I couldn’t process what was happening,” she says of the meeting. Williams, who also faced racism when she was crowned, told Davuluri to call her any time she needed help. “There really was that sisterhood, which was very nice,” Davuluri says.
Davuluri is fielding requests from the Indian press as well. She hopes to travel to India during her reign, making her the rare Miss America who is relevant to an international audience. (It’s the Donald Trump-owned Miss USA pageant, not Miss America, that produces a competitor for Miss Universe.)
And while there’s been a lot of Indian pride for Davuluri, she faces criticism from abroad as well. Bloggers there have pointed out that she would probably never have been chosen as Miss India because her skin would be considered too dark.
“[In India,] the more fair-skinned you are, the more beautiful you are. And they spend tons of money on skin-lightening creams, bleaches, products, and here it’s vice versa; we spend so much on tanning products,” she says. She is interested in connecting with a beauty campaign called “Dark Is Beautiful.” “I would just love to work with them. . . . It would be a wonderful message for younger girls, to tell them that regardless of how dark or light they are, it doesn’t have to matter.”
Her SUV, which has circled the Kennedy Center driveway twice now to give her a few more minutes to chat during the short drive, pulls up by the entrance to the Hall of States. It’s time for another whisk-away. Miss America tour manager Karen Nocella says that Saturday, with only the luncheon, the Kennedy Center festival and some interviews, is a “light day.” On Sunday, Davuluri was to be headed to Los Angeles for “The Arsenio Hall Show.”
“The night I won, I repacked my suitcases, and that’s what I’ve been traveling with, and it’s been very surreal,” Davuluri says. “I haven’t had that moment yet of, ‘Wait, I’m Miss America.’ Maybe it will come soon.”