Did that really happen? Did a woman playing a red plastic cup really beat out all the opera singers and jazz-tap dancers to win Miss America?

Few saw Miss New York Kira Kazantsev coming. She had not won any of the key preliminary competitions in swimsuit or talent last week, which help determine who will make the finals. Nor was she one of the three women to win a “Quality of Life” award for community service. (That honor went to Miss Alabama Caitlin Brunell, daughter of former Redskins quarterback Mark Brunell, who many pageant watchers thought could win it all.) Plus, she was from New York, home of the last two winners — and no state had ever won three years in a row.

If anyone was talking about Kira Kazantsev, it was to laugh at her unlikely talent — beating a red plastic cup on the ground while singing Pharrell Williams’s smash “Happy.” As the Philadelphia Inquirer put it last week, “There were the usual talent oddities not likely to pop up in the final 15, but one can hope … Miss New York did the so-called ‘Cups’ song to ‘Happy,’ which mostly looked like someone sitting and banging a plastic cup on stage.”

Newly crowned Miss America 2014 Kira Kazantsev of New York does a ceremonial "toe dip" in Atlantic City before her year on the job begins. (Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

So what happened? The key to many surprise wins is the all-important preliminary interview, held in the days before the TV broadcast. Unlike swimsuit or talent, judges don’t announce interview winners — but it clearly steers their decisions about who should be in the finals.

Sure enough, judge Marc Cherry, creator of ABC’s “Desperate Housewives,” said the judges were impressed with Kazantsev’s answer about the Ray Rice situation in early rounds of the competition. “I think a lot of us started to fall in love with her during the very first interview,” Cherry said. (Kazantsev: “In the United States, the justice system is driving the getaway car for abusers.”)

On that note, Kazantsev may have been lucky to have picked an unusually timely “platform” — the advocacy cause all contestants must pledge to support through their reign if they win. Her social cause is titled “Love Shouldn’t Hurt: Protecting Women Against Domestic Violence.”

Plus, Kazantsev did pretty well with the televised interview portion when asked about female lawmakers in the Senate — she brought the issue back around to discuss sexual assault in the military. While it wasn’t the most elaborate answer, she did more with her 20 seconds to respond than contestants like Miss Virginia and Miss Arkansas, who stumbled a bit over questions about ISIS and gun control.

And the fact that she represented over-represented New York state? Former Miss America 1998 Kate Shindle suggested on Twitter that the California native, who moved east to attend Hofstra University, might have won because of it, not in spite of it.

Soooo, what about her talent? It certainly seemed like a sneaky way to dress up a thin voice with a limited range. But judges may have found the routine — borrowing from an

and a recent Pharrell Williams mega hit — to be a youthful, fresh alternative to the big-haired opera divas and sequined dancers.

Kazantsev, who told the AP that she was inspired by Kendrick’s song, defended her choice and said that she wanted to show people you didn’t have to have a “traditional” talent to be successful.

“The reason why I chose to do that talent is I wanted every single little girl in America to be able to see that you can do that talent — you can do whatever talent you want on national television — even with a red cup — and still be Miss America and have the time of your life,” Kazantsev said in an interview. “I literally in that minute and 30 seconds had the most fun I’ve ever had, and that’s because I stayed true to myself and I did what I wanted to do for my talent, no matter what everybody else told me, and it paid off. I’m very happy about it.”

The viewing audience, naturally, had a field day — as did people on Twitter, including Kendrick.