McCullough — born in Italy and raised in Virginia Beach — studied nuclear chemistry at South Carolina State University. She wowed the judges early on (producers dubbed her “one of the most intelligent contestants in recent memory”), explaining that she hosts a community outreach program that helps children learn about science. She added that she hopes to inspire women who are interested in technology, engineering and mathematics fields.
“If you would have been my science teacher, I would have paid more attention in class!” declared actor Terrence Jenkins, who co-hosted the pageant along with “Dancing With the Stars” judge Julianne Hough.
In typical beauty pageant fashion, the Q&A portion required contestants to address controversial issues. McCullough’s answers to both questions — about health care and feminism — sparked debate on social media. The first query: “Do you think affordable health care for all U.S. citizens is a right or a privilege and why?”
“I’m definitely going to say it’s a privilege,” McCullough responded. “As a government employee, I am granted health care. And I see firsthand that for one to have health care, you need to have jobs. So therefore, we need to continue to cultivate this environment that we’re given the opportunities to have health care as well as jobs to all the American citizens worldwide.”
The reaction on Twitter was immediate. Same with her second question: “What do you consider feminism to be, and do you consider yourself a feminist?”
“So as a woman scientist in the government, I’d like to lately transpose the word feminism to equalism,” McCullough said as members of the audience cheered. “I don’t really want to consider myself — try not to consider myself like this die-hard, you know, like, ‘Oh, I don’t really care about men.’ But one thing I’m gonna say, though, is women, we are just as equal as men when it comes to opportunity in the workplace.”
“And I say firsthand: I have witnessed the impact that women have in leadership in the medical sciences, as well as just in the office environment,” she added. “So as Miss USA, I would hope to promote that type of leadership responsibility globally to so many women worldwide.”
In a video posted on the Miss USA Twitter account after the competition, McCullough wept backstage as she said she was feeling “extremely overwhelmed with joy,” given that she had just entered the pageant for fun. “I decided to take life as it comes, and if I could encourage anyone else in the world to do that, please — just take your time. Understand the process is so much more important to focus on than just looking toward the outcome,” she said.
McCullough takes the crown from the reigning Miss USA, Miss D.C. Deshauna Barber. A former Army Reserve officer and IT analyst for the U.S. Commerce Department, Barber, 27, said she’s now embarking on a career as a motivational speaker.
More from Arts & Entertainment: