Exclusive: Miss USA Contestants Talk Female Empowerment, Entrepreneurship, and Brains


Throw a quick glance at your television during the Miss USA competition and you’ll probably notice the voluminous hair, dripping evening gowns, and a constant supply of super fit, beautiful women. You may even engage in the age-old stereotype of “brains or beauty,” flip the channel, and assume that’s all these women have to offer.

Look closely, though, and the diversity, charisma, and intelligence exuded by the 51 contestants is undeniable. They boast seriously impressive backgrounds and career goals, and many have a lot to say about women in business and in leadership roles, and about female empowerment, in general. SWAAY was backstage all weekend long to talk with the women, including the crowned winner, Miss USA’s Kára McCullough, a scientist with the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

On Female Empowerment and Entrepreneurship

Miss Kentucky’s Madelynne Myers, who just graduated from Vanderbilt University with a degree in molecular and cellular biology, argues that contrary to popular belief, pageants help propel women and their communities further.

“Organizations like Miss USA are a great stepping stone in women’s rights, equality and empowerment because it provides an opportunity for us to impact the entire world through our platforms,” she told SWAAY. “Even the contestants who aren’t crowned Miss USA or Miss Universe understand we have a responsibility to go back and change our homes and create more opportunities.”

Chhavi Verg, Miss New Jersey USA 2017. Patrick Prather for Miss USA

Miss Alaska’s Alyssa London, a top 10 finalist, agrees. She’s a Stanford graduate and entrepreneur who advocates specifically for women in the business sphere. She’s also fiercely proud of her multicultural background as half native American Tlingit and half European, and has managed to seamlessly combine the pride she has for her heritage with her entrepreneurial tendencies.

Kára McCullough, Miss District Of Columbia USA 2017. Photo courtesy of Patrick Prather for Miss USA

“I gained my entrepreneurial mindset while attending Stanford, and then after graduating I worked at Microsoft where I did partner marketing for small businesses,” London told SWAAY. “I was working with women in technology businesses specifically, and helping them market their businesses and promote their stories so that we would get more women who own businesses in the Microsoft partner channel.”

The skillset London developed at Microsoft allowed her to launch her own personal business as a motivational speaker, conference host, and television host.

“In my motivational speaking, I talk about how awesome it is to design your career and your lifestyle through entrepreneurship,” she said. “I help women think about what they’re actually passionate about and turn that into a business for themselves. I believe that if you feel like you can be independent and self-sufficient with your finances, then that trickles down to having strong families and strong communities.”

Her second business is called Our Culture Story, a platform that celebrates multiculturalism and being strong in your identity. London launched that business by selling a product in Alaskan galleries and gift shops that tells people about her Alaskan native heritage.

On Brains Versus Beauty

There were so many molds broken at the 2017 Miss USA competition. For starters, seven of the top 10 finalists were women of color, including the runner up, Miss New Jersey’s Chhavi Verg, and the crowned winner, Kára McCullough. And the previous Miss USA, Deshauna Barber had everyone in prideful tears when she graced the stage flaunting an afro in her late mother’s memory.

Over the years – and especially this year – the contestants have also been diverse in their career backgrounds. Verg is studying marketing and Spanish at Rutgers University, McCullough is a black scientist with the United States Nuclear Regulatory,

Miss New Hampshire’s Sarah Mousseau is a speech pathologist, Miss Kentucky’s Madelynne Myers just graduated from Vanderbilt University with a degree in molecular and cellular biology, and Miss Tennessee’s Allee-Sutton Hethcoat is working on her law degree while also modeling.

If the above isn’t proof that brains and beauty aren’t mutually exclusive, what is?

“Saying that you can only have beauty or brains is a stereotype I’ve been hearing since I was a little girl. I always just assumed I wasn’t pretty because I would go to school, and I really liked school,” Myers told SWAAY. “I’ve learned that as a modern woman, you don’t have to be just one thing. Women can go into whatever field that want – science, law, education, military. If the world isn’t utilizing half of its resources, that’s a problem.”

The reigning Miss USA agrees, and had a bit of advice to offer to women who live that stereotype every day.

"To people who say you can’t have both brains or beauty, I would say, ‘Why are you so small minded? Life is very intricate and it’s never one sided, so expand your horizons,’” said McCullough, adding, “A person’s character is truly defined by how they use their traits for the betterment of the people around them. You can’t let people who are close minded affect you. Just be so sure in the gifts that you’re given, and so sure about the way in which you share those with the world.”

Kára McCullough, Miss District Of Columbia USA 2017, Patrick Prather for Miss USA

We also asked the current reigning Miss Universe, Iris Mittenaere, about her take on the “beauty versus brains” stereotype.

“It’s really important to say to the young girls that you don’t have to choose between being beautiful and smart,” she said. “You can be a princess and be a doctor. You can do exactly what you want to do. It was my dream to be a dentist, and it was my dream to be a princess, and I didn’t choose. I did both.”


A Modern Day Witch Hunt: How Caster Semenya's Gender Became A Hot Topic In The Media

Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.

Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.

That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.

Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.

Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.

Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.

With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.

The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.

Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.

As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.

Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.