Last night’s Miss America pageant came down to two Asian-American contenders: Chinese-American Miss California, Crystal Lee, and Indian-American Miss New York, Nina Davuluri, who calls herself “Miss Diversity” and performed a Bollywood-style dance routine during the talent round. When Davuluri won, she became the pageant’s first Indian-American winner. Not bad for a contest that started as a beauty competition for women “of the white race.”
Most notable, she did it without whitewashing herself. When Davuluri chose an Indian dance routine, “they told her she’d never win — too foreign,” her personal trainer has said. During the question-and-answer round, Davuluri fielded a question about Julie Chen’s confession to surgically altering her formerly Chinese-looking eyes.
“I don’t agree with plastic surgery,” Davuluri begins. “I’ve always viewed Miss America as the girl next door, and the girl next door is evolving as diversity in America evolves. She’s not who she was ten years ago, and she’s not going to be the same person come ten years down the road. So I wouldn’t want to change someone’s looks or appearance.” Diplomatic, sure, but better than the mindless reaction from Chen’s co-hosts on The Talk. (“Fabulous!” Sharon Osbourne exclaimed at before-and-after pictures.) Davuluri, at least, recognizes where the battlegrounds of prejudice lie. And for good reason: Her crowning drew an onslaught of openly racist dissent calling her a terrorist, a security threat, a “slap in the face to the people of 9-11,” and “Miss 7-11.”
But, though she welcomes racial diversity, Davuluri is less enthused about diverse bodies. “Miss Diversity” recently became a scandalous figure when a fellow pageant contestant recorded her calling Miss American predecessor Mallory Hagan “fat as shit” behind closed doors. Soon thereafter, the New York Post revealed Davuluri’s “pudgy past,” featuring a struggle with bulimia and the loss of 53 pounds. The Post provided before-and-after pictures. Nobody said “fabulous!” but they may as well have. Like Barbie dolls, beauty queens can be any color — as long as they remain standard in shape.
Which is not to say Nina Davuluri isn’t a positive figure in ongoing attempts to change the face of the mainstream. To the extent that women with fake hair parading in bikinis across a televised stage is a barometer for some kind of American ideal, “Miss Diversity” is a welcome addition. She’s exactly as groundbreaking as someone who calls herself “Miss Diversity” can be expected to be.