The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Roots in India, race for Miss America
- Shoha Kirti Parekh breaks into a contest once reserved for Whites

Washington, Sept. 19: America’s Indian community will add yet another feather to its cap this weekend if 24-year-old Shoha Kirti Parekh is crowned Miss America at the glittering annual contest in Atlantic City.

Parekh, the reigning Miss Delaware, will become the second Asian-American winner in the pageant’s 81-year history if she secures the crown on Saturday. Two years ago, an American of Filipino descent, Angela Perez Baraquio of Hawaii, was crowned the first Asian-American winner of the contest. Parekh, whose parents Kirti and Malti were born in India, is a graduate in fine arts with a specialisation in photography from The University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

She is in the running for the crown primarily because the Miss America Organisation hands out $40 million annually in scholarships to contestants and others. She intends to do a Ph.D. in South Asian Art History.

It was during her graduate studies that Parekh was selected for a Promising Artist Award and a Fuji Film Award for Documentary Photography. Her interest in beauty contests started when she used funds from those awards to do a documentary on the Miss America pageant. The experience exposed her to the organisation, which runs the annual event in Atlantic City — the gambling capital of the East Coast — and hands out the hefty scholarships.

Born in Newark, New Jersey, Parekh is a Bharatnatyam dancer and was sponsored for Miss Delaware this year by the Boys and Girls Clubs, an organisation for young people with diverse ethnic backgrounds focusing on the arts.

If she is crowned Miss America, it will be more than just a win for beauty. For nearly four decades, the pageant barred minorities from taking part. Till 1958, one of the rules for participation said: “Contestants must be of good health and of the white race.” Yet, it was not until 12 years later that the first black American beauty felt comfortable enough to take part.

In 1983, Miss New York Vanessa Williams became the first black woman to win the coveted crown. But she was hailed with death threats and hate mail.

Before the year was out, she was hounded into relinquishing her crown after nude photographs of Miss America were published by Penthouse magazine. The runner-up that year was black too: Miss New Jersey Suzette Charles, therefore, wore the crown that Williams gave up for the rest of the year.

Although Asians and other minorities still have few contestants, Parekh belongs to a generation that has not seen such overt discrimination. She says: “I am not here because I am Indian. I am a contestant who happens to be Indian. The idea that I could not enter never crossed my mind.”

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