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.”

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