As I was finishing my year of service as Miss America 2014, a gentleman enthusiastically said to me: “You look like you slept at Boardwalk Hall!" (Boardwalk Hall is the iconic theater that the Miss America Competition is held in Atlantic City). At first, I was so confused as I had an incredibly busy year traveling across the country advocating for diversity and cultural competency. When I asked what he meant, he replied; “You look the same size as you did when you competed in swimsuit!"
In that moment, I was shocked, angry, and crushed. The fact that I was being applauded for my appearance and not the achievements and accolades I had worked tirelessly for was frustrating, but also eye-opening. Especially because how my abs (or lack thereof) looked in a swimsuit had absolutely nothing to do with the actual job of Miss America.
Miss America 2.0 is here and I couldn't be more proud. This year, the Miss America Organization moved into a new era of inclusiveness and empowerment by retiring the swimsuit phase of competition.
Since winning Miss America, it was my mission to bring diversity and inclusion to the organization; I grew up feeling like I could never step into this role since I didn't fit a certain stereotype or category of “black or white." Through my travels, I've met several young women from diverse backgrounds who have approached me saying they feel like they could immensely benefit from this program, but couldn't compete in the organization because of the swimsuit competition and their cultural background and/or religious beliefs. As the first Indian American and South Asian to hold the title, I completely understand their hesitation and barrier to entry as I lived it.
I grew up in a culture and household where I was constantly taught to cover up my body from a young age, and feeling comfortable with “exposing" my body was a significant struggle, let alone feeling confident while doing so.
As a young girl watching Miss America on television, my perception of beauty was defined by the contestants on that stage. It was daunting for me. As a teenager I was always “bigger" than my friends and would avoid going to the beach or pool. It's no secret I struggled with body image for the majority of my formative years, which I've spoken openly about. And while it took me several years to overcome this, I can honestly say that when I competed in the swimsuit competition at Miss America it truly felt like a celebration of conquering my own personal limitations I had set on myself physically, mentally and culturally.
"It's unrealistic, and frankly outrageous, to think that judging women walk in swimsuits and heels is an all-encompassing approach to understanding an individual's overall health and/or lifestyle."-Nina Davuluri Photo Courtesy of Parade
I absolutely agree that living a healthy lifestyle is important. However, one of my Miss America sisters pointed out that we don't have women who look like Rhonda Rousey or Ashley Graham--both of whom are a positive representation of health, confidence and body image. It's unrealistic, and frankly outrageous, to think that judging women walk in swimsuits and heels is an all-encompassing approach to understanding an individual's overall health and/or lifestyle.
The underlying issue lies in the perception the Miss America Organization has portrayed to society: that the measure of a young woman's success is based on outward appearances.
The underlying issue lies in the perception the Miss America Organization has portrayed to society: that the measure of a young woman's success is based on outward appearances. The bottom line is that if Miss America is going to continue its legacy of empowering women and continue to stay relevant, it must start by changing the perception that it's “just a beauty pageant." Because the reality is that it's simply not just that, and it hasn't been for years.
If you look at any of our former contestants who've competed in this organization, you will see a group of highly educated, motivated, well-spoken, passionate women. However, seeing as we've kept presenting swimsuits and appearances at the top of the telecast, I can understand how our messaging has become diluted. We are now at a revolutionary time where we understand that in order to shift society's stereotypes, we must take action. Now more than ever, women are at the forefront using their voices with the #MeToo, #TimesUp and the #SeeHer movements. As a role model for young women, isn't it time Miss America does the same?
Miss America is finally at a point where, as an organization, we can truly say that we want to empower every single woman, not just certain “types" of women.
Miss America is finally at a point where, as an organization, we can truly say that we want to empower every single woman, not just certain “types" of women. That we welcome women from every background, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, shape and size, is integral to the competition's identity. The objectives of Miss America are to showcase young women's scholastic achievements and talents, to provide them with a platform so that their voices are heard and their opinions taken seriously, and to celebrate contestant's entire being based on substance and not a swimsuit. Ultimately, this change signifies that we are placing value on all the young girls (and boys) watching Miss America this year and showing them that in this new era the essence of who they are is worth so much more than keeping an archaic tradition alive. #ByeByeBikini
I have always been in love with all things art- I was obsessed with drawing and painting before I was even walking. In high school, I started a career selling art through various gallery art shows and on Etsy. I then went on to study fine arts at the University of Southern California, with an emphasis in painting, but took classes in ceramics, printmaking, cinema and architecture to get a really well-rounded education on all sorts of art.
During my senior year of college, my career path went through a huge transition; I started my own temporary tattoo brand, INKED by Dani, which is a brand of temporary tattoos based on my hand-drawn fine art designs.
The idea for the brand came one night after a themed party at college. My friends, knowing how much I loved drawing, asked me to cover them in hand-drawn doodles using eyeliner. The feedback from that night was overwhelming, everyone my friends saw that night was obsessed with the designs. In that moment, a lightbulb went off in my head... I could do some completely unique here and create chic temporary tattoos with an art-driven aesthetic, unlike anything else on the market. Other temporary tattoo brands were targeted to kids or lacked a sleek and millennial-driven look. It was a perfect pivot; I could utilize my fine arts training and tattoos as a new art medium to create a completely innovative brand.
Using the money I made from selling my artwork throughout high school and college, I funded the launch of INKED by Dani. I had always loved the look of dainty tattoos, but knew I could never commit to the real thing, and I knew my parents would kill me if I got a tattoo (I also knew that so many girls must have that same conflict). Starting INKED by Dani was a no-brainer.
I started off with a collection of about only 10 designs and sold them at sorority houses around USC. Our unique concept for on-trend and fashion-forward tattoos was spreading through word of mouth, and we quickly started growing an Instagram following. I was hustling all day from my room, cold calling retailers, sending blind samples and tons of emails, and trying to open up as many opportunities as I could.
Now, we're sold at over 10,000 retail locations (retailers include Target, Walmart, Urban Outfitters, Forever 21 and Hot Topic), and we've transformed temporary tattoos into a whole new form of wearable art.
My 4 best tips for starting your own business are:
- Just go with your gut! You'll never know what works until you try it. Go day by day and do everything in your power to work toward your goals. Be bold, but be sure to be thoughtful in your actions.
- Research your competitors and other successful brands in your category to determine how you can make your product stand out. Figure out where there is a need or hole in the market that your new offering or approach can fill.
- Don't spread yourself too thin. Delegate where possible, and stay focused each day on doing the best and most you can. Don't get too caught up in your end goal or the big picture to a point where it overwhelms or freezes you. You're already making a bold move to start something new, so try to prioritize what's important! I started off in the beginning hand packing every single tattoo pack that we sold and shipped. If I wanted to scale to align with the level of demand we were receiving, I needed to make the pivot to mass produce and relinquish the control of doing every step myself. I am a total perfectionist, so that was definitely hard! From that point on, overseeing production has been a huge part of my daily schedule, but by doing so I've been able to free up more time to focus on design, merchandising, and sales, allowing me to really focus on growing the business.
- Prioritize great product packaging and branding. It's so important to invest time in customer experience- how customers view and interact with your product. The packaging is just as important as the actual product inside! When we were starting off, we had high demand, and I definitely jumped the gun a bit on packaging so we could deliver product to the retailers when they wanted it. Since then, we've completely revamped the packaging into something upscale and unique that reflects what the brand is all about. Our product packaging is always called out as being one of our retailers' and customers' favorite part of our product!