Miss America Nina Davuluri returns to Syracuse

The former Miss New York attended a Bollywood-inspired homecoming reception party at The Oncenter on Nov. 16 bringing with her a new beacon of hope for Syracuse’s Indian community.

Recently-crowned Miss America Nina Davuluri has come to stand as a symbol for a new generation of Indian-Americans. 

“[Indian Americans] haven’t really had their spotlight yet,” said Miss Florida Myrrhanda Jones. “I think the world is ready. We have a black president, [America] is ready for more prominent leaders from diverse backgrounds.”

People of all different ethnic backgrounds and all different ages came together Saturday at The Oncenter ballroom evening to honor Davuluri, a Fayetteville native, for her Miss America win. The reception was part of a three-day homecoming celebration tour that included appearances at Destiny USA and the Landmark Theatre. It ends with a breakfast Monday at the Crowne Plaza Horizon Ballroom.

Miss Florida, Myrrhanda Jones, poses with a fan during the OnCenter event Saturday night, November 16. (Photo:Taylor Baucom)

Walking into the ballroom was akin to walking entering the set of a Bollywood film. The decorations were exquisite and most women were dressed in traditional Indian saris. Several food stations, crafted to represent various cultures, lined the side of the room. Standing tables filled the room to allow attendees and contestants to mingle. 

As Davuluri's pageant platform centered on cultural diversity, everything from attendees’ attire to the food were chosen to portray ethnic acceptance, said The Oncenter Events Coordinator Kathy Adelson. “We have Indian food, of course, to pay homage to Nina’s ethnic background. We have a Mediterranean table, we have Italian food and we have a dessert table that has a little bit of everything,” Adelson said. 

 A massive sign welcoming Davuluri was displayed prominently across the main dance floor and set the tone for the evening — an elegant, yet festive, homecoming.

Bollywood dancers perform during the Miss America Homecoming event Saturday night at The OnCenter. (Photo:Taylor Baucom)

Davuluri was joined by the four other Miss America contestants who rounded out this year’s top five: Miss California Crystal Lee; Miss Oklahoma Kelsey Griswold; Miss Florida Myrrhanda Jones; and Miss Minnesota Rebecca Yeh. She was also accompanied by several other contestants she grew close with during the pageant.

Pardeep Zirath, President of Syracuse’s India Community and Religious Cultural Center, said Davuluri’s win has tremendously affected the Indian population. 

“[Her win] has not only affected us in the US but also in India,” Zirath said. “People tuned in from India to see her win in America. We are extremely proud of Nina; she did so much and brought it home to Syracuse.”

Zirath said Davuluri’s win shows the potential of the second generation of Indian-Americans. “The first generation of Indians [in this country] cornered the IT and STEM fields, but I think the second generation will open more possibilities. They were born here, this is what they know. They are Americans. Now they can move into the politics and sports sectors. Nina, of course, got into fashion and that opens the entertainment sector,” Zirath said.

Many local Indian-American high schoolers attended the event and their excitement to meet Davuluri showed. Fayetteville–Manlius High School senior Niharika Reddy shared Zirath’s excitement in seeing an Indian-American woman crowned Miss America. “I love Nina! I didn’t know her personally but the Indian population in Syracuse is very close, everyone knows everyone, so we had heard a lot about her and followed her throughout the pageant,” Reddy said.

The finalists were first to arrive at The OnCenter, coming straight from a jam-packed meet and greet at Destiny USA. Despite a hectic morning, they were poised and welcoming to the guests and immediately took pictures with awaiting fans.

Nina Davuluri steps to the podium to thank her community for their support over the last year. (Photo: Taylor Baucom)

First runner-up, Miss California Crystal Lee, also spoke of cultural diversity. Lee, a Chinese-American, agreed with Davuluri’s outlook on diversity and stressed the importance of women in science fields.

“Every woman in this room is a leader,” Lee said. “[Davuluri] is doing a lot to bridge the gap across cultures.”

Several Bollywood performances and lessons were performed intermittently throughout the evening to honor Davuluri’s Bollywood fusion dance during the talent portion of the Miss America pageant. 

The Bollywood dancers were made up of mostly Miss Teen America contestants and their younger constituents. Maryland Miss Teen American Faith Mohamed was one of the dancers. “America is diverse and all cultures can be beautiful,” Mohamed said. “It’s really awesome to finally see an Indian girl up on [the Miss America] stage.”

However, Indian-American women were not the only ones performing Bollywood fusion routines — girls and women from all different backgrounds performed. Cady Stoever, Miss Flower City’s Outstanding Teen 2014, also danced the traditional Indian dances.

“A year ago I was extremely shy and reserved. The [pageant system] has allowed me to gain confidence. I was able to learn about a new culture,” said Stoever, who is 14 years old. “I am privileged to be a part of it.”

Nina Davuluri speaks with Congressman Dan Maffei at Saturday night's homecoming event. (Photo: Taylor Baucom)

Miss Oklahoma 2013 Kelsey Griswold said it is great that Davuluri was bringing more diversity to America. “It’s awesome what she’s doing,” Griswold said. “Anyone can be Miss America, whether it’s me, a full-blooded Caucasian, an Indian-American, or whoever. We’re all leaders and passionate about what we do.”

“It’s important to be yourself in pageants and Nina does that. I don’t give a shit what other people think [about me] and you can print that,” Griswold said. “You meet so many girls that are stiff and you know they aren’t really being themselves. It’s important to be who you are in pageants.”

Soon Miss America was introduced. Several representatives of Miss America spoke praises of Davuluri and why she was a great fit for Miss America.

One speaker got choked up as he discussed Davuluri, calling her a heroine and an international celebrity.

When Nina came out on stage, she was understandably emotional and excited to be there. She spoke of how her journey had, in a way, started out in the very room we were standing in, just a mere year before. She spoke of how her family and her community shaped her to be where she is today.

Miss American, Nina Davuluri, Miss New York, Amanda Mason and Claire Buffie pose for a photo at Saturday night's Miss American Homecoming event. (Photo: Taylor Baucom)

Davuluri left the stage to open up for a Bollywood fashion show. After a quick break, Davuluri returned, with several of the semi-finalists joining her in traditional Indian dress, to take pictures and speak with the crowd. 

In the end, the evening was more than simply a homecoming reception for Davuluri. The reception, much like the day she was crowned, symbolized a new beginning. Zirath said her win is another positive step towards an America in which cultural diversity is not only accepted, but also encouraged. “I can’t wait to see what is in store for us next,” said Zirath.

 *We were unable to include Nina Davuluri's perspective on being Miss America as she did not participate in a scheduled Sunday interview.

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