Beating the Odds

Back-to-back wins are a rare feat, but for the second year in a row Miss District of Columbia has taken the Miss USA crown

Mother’s Day took on special meaning as fifty-one strong, intelligent, and confident state representatives took to the stage at the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas, Nevada to compete for the illustrious crown of Miss USA 2017. Again hosted by Julianne Hough and Terrence J, with backstage commentary from model Ashley Graham, the night promised all of the glitz, beauty, and suspense Las Vegas had to offer during the live telecast on the FOX television network.

In true Vegas style, the Miss USA 2017 competition commenced with the presentation of the delegates vying for the crown to the accompaniment of Michael Jackson’s “One,” featuring a performance by Cirque du Soleil. As the energy ramped up throughout the live audience, the determined delegates prepared for the proclamation of the top ten who would advance in the quest for the title of Miss USA 2017. With a vivacious and loud live audience welcoming each announcement, the finalists who took center stage were: Miss Minnesota USA Meridith Gould, Miss New Jersey USA Chhavi Verg, Miss Missouri USA Bayleigh Dayton, Miss Tennessee USA Allee-Sutton Hethcoat, Miss California USA India Williams, Miss District of Columbia USA Kára McCullough, Miss South Carolina USA Megan Gordon, Miss New York USA Hannah Lopa, Miss Illinois USA Whitney Wandland, and Miss Alaska USA Alyssa London. One of these ten women would capture the title of Miss USA 2017.

Keeping with the newer format of the Swimsuit Competition, the ten finalists appeared onstage in the group format, whereby each delegate took to the stage in her personal presentation of a fit and dedicated lifestyle. With the initial competition of the night complete, the judges cast their ballots as the highly anticipated and elegant Evening Gown presentation awaited.

Serenaded by country superstar Brett Eldridge, the Evening Gown competition showcased the beauty, grace, individuality, and poise of each young woman as she welcomed the adulation and positive reaction of the live audience.

With two phases of competition complete, the judges’ decision of which state queens would continue into the top five were announced: Miss Minnesota USA, Miss Illinois USA, Miss South Carolina USA, Miss District of Columbia USA, and Miss New Jersey USA. These five had beaten the Vegas odds and would now face the judges, audience, and telecast viewers in the tense and anxious Question Round.

Knowing that every word, phrase, and answer would be analyzed throughout the world of social media, the top five individually approached the microphone to answer her unique question honestly and succinctly. Current social issues were addressed such as: (MN) How would you like the global community to view the United States?; (IL) Which specific issue regarding women’s rights is most important to you?; (SC) Regarding teen suicide, what action would you take as Miss USA to help struggling teens?; (D.C.) Is affordable health care for all U.S. citizens a right or a privilege?; and (NJ) Do you feel social media is ultimately positive or negative? The difficult decision of the judges after each compelling reply would narrow the field to the top three, who would each answer the same final question.

The “Final Word” welcomed the remaining trio of Miss D.C. USA, Miss Minnesota USA, and Miss New Jersey USA to address the judges one final time and make her statement to represent the crown of Miss USA. The question of “What do you consider feminism to be, and do you consider yourself a feminist?” was presented to each remaining contestant who was provided forty-five seconds to respond.

As the countdown to crowning approached, the finalists took center stage as the delegates made one final impression on the judges to the high octane performance of global superstar Pitbull.

With the announcement of Miss Minnesota USA Meridith Gould as second runner-up, the two remaining finalists clasped hands and awaited the final proclamation. For what may have seemed like an eternity, Miss D.C. and New Jersey nervously awaited the decision. In a rare event, back-to-back wins, the 2017 Miss USA crown was bestowed upon Kára McCullough, the now former Miss D.C. USA, which afforded Miss New Jersey the title of first runner-up.

Miss USA 2017 Kára McCullough had beaten the Vegas odds by becoming the second young woman in a row to capture the title of Miss District of Columbia and Miss USA with a combination of beauty, confidence, and intelligence. Congratulations to your new Miss USA 2017 Kára McCullough…and, yes…she really is a nuclear scientist.

Pageantry magazine: You’re standing center stage with Miss New Jersey and about to take the crown back to DC for the second year in a row. We haven’t had back to back winners since 1989. What’s going through your mind?
Kára McCullough: Honestly, I tuned out everything external in that moment when I was standing center stage with her. I just started to pray. The only thing that was going through my mind was just to be grateful and telling myself that no matter what happens, life is going to go on, it doesn’t end here. So, I’m just thankful for this entire experience.

PM: Have you settled in to the title and lifestyle of Miss USA?
KM: Slowly. I was always told slow and steady wins the race. So, it’s still becoming a big adjustment for me. But I think I’m ready. I think this is what I was meant to do. So, it’s a pretty good experience, so far.

PM: Many stereotypes were broken when you captured the crown. Not only are you Miss USA, but some may say a nuclear scientist.
KM: I’m thankful for those accolades that people have given me. To clarify things, I studied chemistry, and I concentrated in radiochemistry. I work at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. I would love to take that title to nuclear scientist, but essentially, we focus on making sure the nuclear power plants are safe. So, if we can use those words to parallel me in the same thing, let’s go with it.

PM: Also, you’re the second Miss USA to work for the government in what many may perceive as a male-dominated field. Please explain “Confidently Beautiful.”
KM: Wow, you even just told me a new fact. So, just to give you a backstory before I give you my definition for “Confidently Beautiful”: I have a mentor at the agency. When I first was hired, she told me, “You always sit at the table because you deserve to be there. You worked hard to be there.”

So, when it comes to being confidently beautiful, it’s about truly just having this presence about yourself. When you walk into a building or a conference room or a meeting, you know full well that you’ve done the work to be there, and you deserve to be there, and you are just as equal as everyone in that room for an opportunity. Being “Confidently Beautiful” focuses on just being powerful in your own self and just having so much confidence that no one can tell you that you’re doing anything wrong.

PM: Talk to us about your platform, Science Exploration for Kids.
KM: Oh, my gosh. Thank you for knowing. Science Exploration for Kids focuses on fun, hands-on, interactive projects for the younger level children, like in elementary school. It also does college symposiums and career expos for high school students.

I started it in college because I struggled with math as a child. One thing I wanted to do was help children understand, though, that science isn’t difficult. The answers are always right there in front of you. I wanted to bring it in a more fun and interactive way so they can have such a passion for it at a young age and go into a career and major in a STEM subject.

PM: How important is the STEM program for our nation’s young people?
KM: It’s so important because we have to understand that our nation is progressing every day, whether it be a new medical finding in the sciences, or something with energy. We need to make sure we’re gearing up the next generation of students to have a lot of passion in these areas.

So, being a scientist myself now, that’s what I focus on with the children. I let them understand, though, “You’re needed in the future. Things are progressing, and we need minds like yours that are going to either make a new medication, help find a cure for a disease, or be an awesome teacher for a science, technology, engineering, and math subject.”

PM: Let’s talk a little about your new life in New York City. You’ve already been very active with photo shoots, appearances, and media interviews like this one.
KM: I’ve wanted to live here for years now. I love everything about New York City, from just walking everywhere, wearing my Fitbit, checking my steps. I love to take the train. I just think New York is such an awesome place to truly find your dreams, see so many different restaurants and types of parks, and such like that. So, the adjusting is coming slowly, but this is where I’ve wanted to live for years. I’m so thankful for this opportunity.

PM: What are your ultimate goals as Miss USA?
KM: So many things—if I could just give you two or three. I definitely want to expand my program, Science Exploration for Kids. I really want to get into the tri-city area schools, talk to high school students, as well, so they can find career opportunities, even possibly do symposiums at my old agency because they’re so supportive.

Additionally, I’m hoping to just be impacted by so many people around me. We work very closely with Best Buddies. I was just in Boston for the Best Buddies Challenge this past weekend. It was so touching because you’re meeting people from all walks of life who just want to help other people in life. That’s really a part of my goal: to really find myself throughout this process and just be impacted by other people along the way.

PM: I know you’ve answered this question probably hundreds of times. But after the unwarranted criticism during the final answer round, are you more wary of the realm of social media now?
KM: Of course. Absolutely. I will say I’ve always understood that there are positives and negatives to social media. But I was actually happy at the end of the day with all the social media just highlighting everything because we’re starting a healthy discussion. I think that’s what’s most important. So, if social media brings that platform when people from all walks of life can have a healthy discussion and talk about things that are actually going on our nation and are affecting us, then by all means, let’s continue to do it.

PM: What would you tell other young women who are bullied or criticized on social media?
KM: For one, we have to understand that there’s always going to be naysayers and critics. One thing you have to understand is you need to leave what you don’t need, and take only what you need. So, when it comes to social media bullying, for one, block that person because it’s not healthy. They don’t need to be in your life.

Additionally, don’t respond. That’s when that individual can absolutely see that you’re not affected by them. That’s where your strength will come in later on. So, those individuals that are being bullies, block them, don’t respond, find happiness in your friends and the people around you that love you.

PM: In representing our nation’s capital, the work of Miss USA with the USO has to be very poignant personally, yes?
KM: Of course. Definitely. Even for myself, I am a Navy brat. Excuse me, a military child. My mother was in the Navy. Of course, we have to work very closely with them.

PM: Your mother was a Chief Petty Officer, yes?
KM: She was. Oh, my gosh. You actually know that. She was.

PM: Miss DC—Miss USA—first time since 1989 back to back winners from any state—have you received any advice from your predecessor, Deshauna Barber?
KM: Absolutely. But one thing I want to point out about my predecessor, Deshauna Barber, is anything she shared with me, she literally shared with everyone. That’s an admirable quality of a leader. She always said, “Just be yourself.” When it came to me wearing my hair natural, she was one of my biggest supporters for that.

PM: Although it’s early in your year as Miss USA, is there anything that you’ve learned about yourself? Something new?
KM: Yeah. Let’s say I love Fresh&Co. It’s right across the street. No, but I will say I didn’t realize how much I would have loved this lifestyle: interviews and being on television and taking photos. I’ve always been a very—not introverted—but a very, just calm person. But I’m in love with this lifestyle now. I’m just so surprised at myself because of that. So, thank you, Miss USA.

PM: You have a great family behind you up there with the Miss Universe organization.
KM: I can’t even begin to explain to you how absolutely cool everyone in this office is. They’re great. So, any other young lady, like my successor that comes after me, she’s in for an amazing adventure with an absolutely very touching family.

PM: It is. Is there anything you would like to add today?
KM: Let’s see. Yes. I want to just leave a message with any individual in life that wants to pursue something, whether it be educational, something just for their pleasure or leisure, or in pageantry. Always have purpose and never do anything halfway. I came upon this idea for myself, as if I didn’t already know, when I ran my third time for Miss DC USA. I put my all into it. I made sure I trained properly and I didn’t make excuses.
So, those individuals out there, I just want them to understand—never do anything halfway. Of course, I may be telling them something they already know, but just be sure that you’re putting your all into everything and have purpose behind it.