As a member of the South Asian community, I have always grappled with the question of whether or not to talk about my Indian-American identity in a pageant interview. And if I do talk about my heritage in an interview, how much should I talk about it?
I have had coaches stand on both sides of the ethnicity argument. One coach said, “Talk about your heritage, because people will notice you’re not white.” Conversely, I’ve had coaches who have said that the emphasis on my ethnicity sounds like it was coached to be there, or worse as though I am holding a grudge about discrimination.
So, should I talk about my South Asian heritage or not?
What I have learned, from my previous pageant experiences, is that judges like seeing authenticity. Just be yourself is great advice.
More than that, from observing both pageants and politics, I have noticed that when a person embraces the very thing that makes him or her different, the audience feels a sense of satisfaction. President Barack Obama did this in his campaign by embracing his heritage. Hillary Clinton is doing this now by embracing her gender. Nina Davuluri embraced her cultural roots by performing a Bollywood dance during the talent portion of the Miss America pageant, and continued to do so during her reign as the first Indian-American Miss America.
In a pageant, a judging panel has to make a quick decision of someone’s character—often based on a two minute interview and about five minutes of the contestant being on stage. A contender who embraces herself will stand out, and the judging panels will inevitably see that for themselves. The point of a pageant is to stand out, and woman who blends in is simply not going to win.
While browsing contestant profiles for the Miss U.S.A. pageant, I noticed that some contestants revealed their heritages, while others did not.
Miss Massachusettes U.S.A. Polikseni Manxhari talks about her Albanian heritage. Knowing about Polikseni’s heritage made me feel as though I knew her better, regardless of whether or not I identified with her Albanian heritage. Knowing that she is Albanian, also gave me something to latch on to. It was memorable.
Similarly, knowing the history of a person and where they come from shows that they are open to telling their story. It is this openness that makes her likeable.
Conversely, Miss Michigan U.S.A. Rashontae Wawrzyniak has an ethnically ambiguous look, but an interesting last name. Reading her profile, I wondered what the name’s ethnic origin was, but she did not state it. Although, her ethnic omission did not make the contestant less likeable, it did leave some mystery to her persona, which is the converse to being open. She is memorable for other reasons, but there was no negative in clarifying heritage.
In a competition where you want the judges to get to know you based off of a first impression, why not bear it all in your two-minute interview? If done right, it will make you seem open, vulnerable, likeable and memorable.
Perhaps this curiosity and desire to know more about where a person comes from is innocent. Or maybe, it is a reflection of the self-segregation that still exists in America. This curiosity could indicate a lack of integration in this country. Maybe it is more reflective of a desire for us to recognize our differences and to embrace them at the same time. It may even be all of the previously mentioned things at the same time.
Either way, more times than not, embracing one’s background has a positive impact on a contestant’s outcome. Obama and Davuluri are both great examples of people who embraced their racial and ethnic identities in order to win an election and a pageant, respectively.
I decided to throw out the advice of the coach who said hide your ethnicity, because during my journey to the Miss U.S. International East Coast Regional competition, I realized the cause I have been advocating for all along—showcasing my cultural diversity.
Now, that the platforms that I am competing in are relatively smaller than the Miss USA/Universe pageant systems, I can stay even truer to who I am because there is less at stake.
I want to make a difference for millions of girls and women who have gone through the same things that I have and need a role model to look up to, whether it be in the pageant system or not.
Sheena Pradhan started her career as a nutrition major at Drexel University. She founded and ran a business called Nutritious Balance after college in 2011. In 2013, she competed in her first pageant, Miss New Jersey USA, which she credits for empowering her and teaching her how to follow her dreams. Sheena is now pursuing her original dreams of working in the fashion industry in New York City. Sheena is now a stylist and hopes to soon call herself a fashion editor. You can read her writing at Brown Girl Magazine and India.com on a range of topics from fashion to nutrition.