Nina Davuluri

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Nina Davuluri
Davuluri standing at a podium
Davuluri at the White House Forum on Minorities in Energy, November 2013
Born (1989-04-20) April 20, 1989 (age 26)
Syracuse, New York
Residence Fayetteville, New York
Nationality American
Ethnicity Indian American
Education University of Michigan
(B.S. in Brain Behavior and Cognitive Science, 2011)
St. Joseph High School
Occupation Public speaker and advocate
Known for First Indian-American Miss America and Miss New York
Title Miss America 2014
Miss New York 2013
Miss Syracuse 2013
Second runner-up, Miss New York 2012
Miss Greater Rochester 2012
First runner-up, Miss America's Outstanding Teen 2007
Miss Michigan's Outstanding Teen 2006
Term September 15, 2013 - September 14, 2014
Predecessor Mallory Hagan
Successor Kira Kazantsev
Religion Hinduism

Nina Davuluri (Telugu: నీనా దావులురి; born April 20, 1989)[1] is an American public speaker and advocate. As Miss America 2014 and Miss New York 2013, Davuluri was the first Indian American (and second Asian American) to be crowned Miss America and the first to perform a Bollywood dance on the Miss America stage. She is "the first Miss America to receive xenophobic and racist comments about being a terrorist or Muslim extremist,"[2][3] because of her ethnic background.[4]

Childhood, education and pageants[edit]

Davuluri was born on April 20, 1989 in Syracuse, New York,[1] to Hindu Telugu parents [5][6] from Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh, India.[6] Her mother, Sheela Davuluri, is an information-technology specialist and her father, Chaudhury Davuluri, is a gynecologist.[5] Davuluri's older sister, Meena, is a student at SUNY Upstate Medical University and president of the university's student chapter of the American Medical Association.[7][8]

When she was six weeks old, Davuluri was brought to live with her grandmother and aunt in Vijayawada. She stayed there until she was two-and-a-half years old, when her parents brought her back to the United States.[9] Davuluri returned to India each summer to study Indian dance,[5] and speaks Telugu.[10]

She lived in Oklahoma for a time as a child, until her family moved to St. Joseph, Michigan when she was 10.[11] In Michigan Davuluri studied ballet, tap and jazz dance, and was a "high school marching band clarinetist, cheerleader, varsity tennis player and Science Olympiad team member at St. Joseph High School."[5] She graduated from St. Joseph in 2007,[11] when her family moved to Fayetteville, New York.[12]

Wait-listed for the University of Michigan, Davuluri attended Michigan State University in the fall of her freshman year before her admission to the University of Michigan for the spring semester.[13] She was a Sigma Kappa (Alpha Mu),[14][15] a member of the Maya Indian-dance group,[5] was on the Dean's List and received Michigan Merit and National Honor Society Awards.[16] Davuluri graduated in 2011 with a B.S. in Brain Behavior and Cognitive Science.[5][14][17] Originally a pre-med student (she returned to New York after graduation and took nine pre-med courses at Le Moyne College),[18][19] Davuluri announced midway through her tenure as Miss America that she would not apply to medical school.[20][21][22]

Miss Michigan Outstanding Teen and Miss New York[edit]

Davuluri became interested in beauty pageants when she was 16 and living in St. Joseph, Michigan. When her sister Meena entered a local competition (winning the title of Miss St. Joseph), Davuluri also wanted to compete.[20] Because she was too young to enter local pageants, she became involved with the Miss America's Outstanding Teen pageant[20] and realized that they were a way of earning scholarship money.[7][20] As a Michigan resident, Davuluri won the Miss Michigan's Outstanding Teen title in 2006 and was first runner-up at the 2007 Miss America's Outstanding Teen pageant. After winning $25,000 in scholarships from these events,[11][23] she "took about five years off from the pageant world" to complete her undergraduate education.[23]

Davuluri returned to the pageant world in 2012 as a New York resident to pay for graduate school.[23] As Miss Greater Rochester,[24] she was second runner-up in the Miss New York pageant[25][26] (whose winner, Mallory Hagan, became Miss America 2013 in Las Vegas).[25][26] The following year Davuluri won the Miss Syracuse[27] and Miss New York pageants, the first Indian American to do so.[7][28][29] Meena and their mother helped her prepare for the state pageant.[7]

After her crowning as Miss New York, Davuluri invited friends to her hotel room for a party. A fellow contestant in a nearby room said that she overheard Davuluri call Mallory Hagan "fat as [bleep]" during the party. According to a Miss America official, "The situation was investigated fully back in July and there is no validity to the story whatsoever. Miss New York spoke to Mallory Hytes Hagan to let her know there was no validity and to apologize if she was offended in any way."[30] Davuluri said in an interview that she did not make the remark and "Mallory and I are good friends."[31] She has spoken publicly about losing 53 pounds (24 kg), her struggle with bulimia and her belief that "you don't need to be a certain size to be healthy".[32][33]

Miss America 2014[edit]

Davuluri, smiling and waving in a lime-green top
Davuluri during the 2014 Miss America toe dip, September 16, 2013

Davuluri was Miss America 2014 from September 15, 2013 to September 14, 2014. She was the second consecutive Miss New York to win the crown, after Miss America 2013 Mallory Hagan. The 2014 pageant was held on September 15 at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey, returning to its original venue after nine years in Las Vegas.[34] Hosted by Chris Harrison and Lara Spencer, it was broadcast live on ABC. The panel of celebrity judges for the top 15 finalists were Deidre Downs Gunn, Carla Hall, Barbara Corcoran, Amar'e Stoudemire, Lance Bass, Joshua Bell and Mario Cantone.[35]

For the pageant's talent portion, Davuluri performed a fusion of Bollywood and Indian classical dance; she grew up studying the Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam classical-dance forms.[6][9][36][37] She performed her routine, choreographed with Nakul Dev Mahajan, to "Dhoom Taana" from the Bollywood film Om Shanti Om.[36][38][39] In an Inside Edition interview, Davuluri said that for her talent routine she "actually started off singing." She chose a Bollywood fusion dance instead because it was "so representative" of her, despite advice from others that she was "never going to win with a Bollywood talent so just go back to singing if you are serious about it" and noting that hers was the first Bollywood dance routine at a Miss America pageant.[32]

Davuluri speaking, wearing her Miss America tiara, large earrings and a long necklace of red flowers
At the International Alliance for the Prevention of AIDS (IAPA) benefit dinner, April 19, 2014

During the pageant's final moments Davuluri and Miss California Crystal Lee, the last contestants on stage, were asked by Lara Spencer how they felt. Davuluri replied that she and Lee were "both so proud. We’re making history right here, standing here as Asian-Americans."[40][41] In an interview with NPR's Michel Martin, she described the moment as a "very surreal, out-of-body experience, being there in the final two. I was holding hands with Miss California, Crystal Lee, and we were both standing there at such a historic moment — two Asian-Americans who were going to take the title and to be a new symbol of hope and encouragement." [23]

I really wanted to help effect a change in beauty standards .... Miss America's branding is so associated with the girl next door, which has always meant blonde hair and blue eyes with only a few exceptions, but the girl next door must evolve as the country evolves. When I was younger I wanted to fit in, but I was aware growing up that I didn't fit that mould, and I really wanted to help make a change that meant young girls wouldn't feel like that.

—Nina Davuluri[42]


[After being named Miss New York 2013], people called me a terrorist and ridiculous things like that. When that happened, I sat down with my mom and sister and [asked], "Why is this happening? I was born in New York, and I've always thought of myself as first and foremost American".[20]

The biggest thing I realized is that many of these remarks aren’t necessarily meant to be malicious but are simply a factor of ignorance [...] understanding everyone’s beliefs and backgrounds and finding that common ground so we can all communicate in an open, honest and respectful manner [...] is something I’ve essentially been promoting my entire life.[43]

Nina Davuluri

Shortly after Davuluri was crowned Miss America 2014, xenophobic and racist comments[44][45][46][47] noting the pageant date relative to the September 11 anniversary and expressing anti-Indian sentiment appeared on social media.[44][45][45][47][48][49][50][51][52] News agencies cited tweets misidentifying her as Muslim or Arab, calling her a "terrorist" or associated her with groups such as Al-Qaeda and asking why she was chosen over a soldier (Miss Kansas, Theresa Vail).[44][45][48][53] Davuluri said that she was prepared for the social-media response because "as Miss New York, I was called a terrorist and very similar remarks."[20][27][54] At her alma mater, St. Joseph High School, Davuluri told the students that she is "so proud of the younger generations, yourselves included, for really stepping up to those comments because for every one negative comment tweet or post I received hundreds if not thousands of words of positive remarks and support and encouragement."[55] St. Joseph senior Triston Corneman was impressed by Davuluri's choice not to retaliate against those who attacked her, saying that she "showed that two hatreds don't make a kindness."[56]

Miss Kansas Theresa Vail denounced the social-media backlash and supported Davuluri.[57][58][59][60] Duke University students created a video against the backlash titled, #StandWithNina.[61][62] Actor and civil-rights activist George Takei also defended Davuluri in a Facebook post[63][64] and appeared with her in an ABC News interview to discuss the backlash. During the interview, Davuluri said that she is a Trekkie: "I have to say, 'live long and prosper." Takei gave her the Vulcan salute, which she returned.[65]

Here, in America, we have this billion-dollar industry that is tanning salons and products, and abroad in many Asian countries, we have our own billion-dollar industry of fairness creams and bleaching products ... I think it's this idea of wanting what you don't have. I think when I learned about ... all the blog posts and commentary highlighting this aspect of "She never would have won Miss India if she were competing there", my reaction to that is "Well, I never wanted to be Miss India" ... when I was growing up, I heard people in India say, 'You would be so much more beautiful if you were fairer". But I've been able to take on this role and say, "You know what? I'm proud".

Nina Davuluri[20]

A different discussion developed in India and the Indian diaspora after Davuluri’s win about her dark complexion and colorism.[66][67][68][69] According to Moni Basu on CNN,[70] Rega Jha in BuzzFeed[71] and Mallika Rao in The Huffington Post,[72] Davuluri’s win "reignited"[70] a debate in social media over color-based discrimination in India. Mallika Kapur wrote for Time that "many say" Davuluri "is too dark-skinned to win" in India.[73] The Hindu editorial staff agreed, asking "if Ms Davuluri would have ever made it past the qualifying rounds of a beauty contest in India. In a country where a multi-crore rupee cosmetic industry thrives on promises of lightening a woman’s skin colour in 10, 20 or 30 days, it is fair to say that the dark-complexioned 24-year-old would not have stood a chance."[53] Yale Law School dean Asha Rangappa also agreed, noting that "despite being a country of almost a billion people, India has left it to America to crown the first Indian beauty queen who looks ... well, Indian ... Davuluri's title offers some vindication for the Indian women and girls whose value, according to Indian standards, has been eclipsed by the color of their skin."[74] Ruchika Tulshyan wrote in Forbes that Davuluri "would unlikely be crowned a winner in a beauty pageant in India. The Asian subcontinent has always defined beauty by lighter skin color; Aishwarya Rai is a great example of this. The models, actresses and beauty pageant winners from India have usually had one thing in common: fair skin."[75] Anitha Menon wrote for The Michigan Daily, "In India, fair is beautiful; dark is irrelevant. Miss India, year after year, looks more white than Indian. The most recent Miss America, Nina Davuluri, is too "dusky" to ever win an Indian beauty pageant."[76]

Although the Miss World (Reita Faria, 1966; Aishwarya Rai, 1994; Diana Hayden, 1997; Yukta Mookhey, 1999 and Priyanka Chopra, 2000), Miss Universe (Sushmita Sen, 1994 and Lara Dutta, 2000), and Miss Earth (Nicole Faria, 2010) pageants have had winners from India, Davuluri is the first Indian American to win the Miss New York and Miss America pageants.[23][34][72][77] NPR's Michael Martin discussed the significance of the 2014 Miss America pageant in an interview with Davuluri. Martin noted that while Davuluri was not the first Asian American to be crowned Miss America (the first was Filipino American Angela Perez Baraquio in 2001),[78] "There were five Asian-Americans competing for the crown. That's the highest number in pageant history. Three of you were in the top five. Two of you were the finalists, and this in a contest where initially the requirements were that contestants be of good health and of the white race."[23][79]

Davuluri is the second Miss Syracuse to win the Miss America title; the first was Miss New York 1983 and Miss America 1984 Vanessa Lynn Williams, the first African American winner.[80][81] She and Williams won in Atlantic City, and both experienced a backlash.[80][81] Congresswoman Grace Meng compared Davuluri to Miss New York and Miss America 1945 Bess Myerson, the only Jewish-American winner to date,[81][82] who also experienced discrimination as Miss America.[83][84][85][86][87] In August 2014 fashion designer Tony Bowls announced that he designed a shoe, "the Nina", in Davuluri's honor.[88]


Last Tuesday, the first Indian Miss America, Nina Davuluri, came to speak at Yale University. She is also the first Miss America to receive xenophobic comments about being a terrorist or Muslim extremist. In addition to being all-around well spoken, graceful and sassy, she thoughtfully explained her platform of cultural competence and stressed that patiently answering people’s questions is one of the strongest ways to combat ignorance ... Responding to offensive questions with tolerance and patience might be more effective than harsh words. As we can see from Davuluri’s response to her critics, tolerance begets tolerance.

Yale University junior Lorraine James in February 2014[2]

During her year as Miss America Davuluri promoted her platform, Celebrating Diversity Through Cultural Competency, and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) to high-school and college students.[31][36][54][89][90][91][92] She elaborated on her platform in a Yale University talk[2][93][94] as one using social media as a form of activism.[2][93][94] Describing it as "Circles of Unity", Davuluri encouraged students to view social media as a tool to spread cultural awareness and combat ignorance.[93] In an interview, she said that she "really hope[s] this dialogue creates a new positive and enlightening discussion via social media. I hope that people will understand that regardless of your different beliefs or backgrounds, we can all still communicate and respect one another in an open and honest manner. That’s not to say we have to agree with everyone’s beliefs, but I hope people will develop that fine line of respect and honesty."[95]

During Davuluri's visit to Central York High School in Pennsylvania, 18-year-old Patrick Farves was suspended for inviting her to his 2014 prom during a question-and-answer session.[96][97] Although she requested that the suspension be lifted in a Facebook post,[96] school administrators said that they must maintain standards for student behavior.[97] Farves later regretted his joke, since it overshadowed Davuluri's platform.[97]

Davuluri is a spokeswoman for PETA, extending her campaign celebrating diversity to the adoption of mixed-breed dogs from animal shelters.[98] On October 16, 2013, she met President Barack Obama at a meeting with the Children's Miracle Network Hospital Champions at the White House.[42][99][100] Obama had met Miss Americas Laura Marie Kaeppeler (2012), Caressa Cameron (2010) and Katie Stam (2009) at similar events,[101] [102][103] and in March 2008 President George W. Bush met Miss America Kirsten Haglund for the same cause.[104]

After Miss America[edit]

Since completing her work as Miss America, Davuluri has continued to promote her platform[31][36] and STEM[105] in her current position as a public speaker and advocate. She has spoken in political and diplomatic venues; in September 2014, Davuluri and PBS' NewsHour Weekend anchor Hari Sreenivasan presided over a Madison Square Garden talk by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as part of his first visit to the United States since his 2005 visa denial.[106][107][108][109] In July 2015, Davuluri participated in the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Summit Youth and Women Day[110] in Nairobi.[111]

Davuluri has continued to speak on college campuses. In an October 2014 East Carolina University talk, she discussed the harassment she faced during her childhood. Noting that she was "called everything from Miss 7-Eleven to a terrorist," Davuluri challenged her audience to stand up to stereotypes and bullying through language: "Words have power. Any time you speak, you are influencing someone."[21] The following month, she spoke on women in STEM at Northeastern University.[112] In March 2015, Davuluri spoke at Harvard and Princeton. Participating earlier in the month in the Harvard Undergraduate Council's "Side by Side" gender-equality campaign,[113][114] she then spoke about diversity at Princeton.[13][115] In the fall of 2016, Davuluri plans to begin an MPP-MBA (Master of Public Policy-Master of Business Administration) program emphasizing international relations and marketing.[20][116]

Other accolades[edit]

  • India Abroad Face of the Future Award 2014: India Abroad, June 19, 2015, M69-M82.[20]
  • Elected trustee on the Miss America Foundation Board in February 2015, the first Miss America on the board.[20][117]


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External links[edit]

Awards and achievements
Preceded by
Mallory Hagan
Miss America
Succeeded by
Kira Kazantsev
Preceded by
Shannon Oliver
Miss New York
Succeeded by
Amanda Mason