Olivia Culpo has experienced many firsts in the past year. She participated in her first pageant. She traveled to Las Vegas for the first time. She met people and saw places she had never dreamed of.
And on Monday night, Culpo shared a long awaited first with her hometown when she became the first Rhode Islander to be crowned Miss USA.
“I was just so surprised, so shocked, so honored to be there,” Culpo said at the post-pageant press conference when asked what was going through her mind when the top five was whittled down to just two contestants – herself and Miss Maryland, Nana Meriwether. “I’m so excited to be part of such a great organization.”
According to NBC, the station that aired the pageant, more than 250 million viewers tuned in worldwide to the 61st annual pageant. In the stands were about 20 of Culpo's family members, including her parents, Susan and Peter, her brothers Gus and Pete, and sisters Aurora and Sophia.
Gus Culpo said watching the pageant live had him on the edge of his seat.
"I thought she would have a good chance, but at the time, I was saying, 'what do I know?' Each time she was introduced to be in the next round, I said to myself, 'I'm proud of her no matter what'...but I was still really nervous for her," he said. "It was a tense time for all of us in the stands when it came down to the elimination rounds."
Since the competition was founded in 1952, Rhode Island has never taken home the title. The Ocean State now joins the ranks of 29 other states and the District of Columbia that have been home to the crown. Texas holds the record with nine titleholders.
A 20-year-old native of Cranston, Culpo graduated from St. Mary Academy Bay View in 2010 and just finished her sophomore year at Boston University, where she is a Dean’s List student studying communications.
Junior year will have to wait, however, as Culpo will take a year off for her reign as Miss USA, taking the place of outgoing titleholder Alyssa Campanella. Culpo already has a full plate of Miss USA duties, flying to New York first thing on Monday morning and embarking on a media tour that included a Tuesday morning guest spot on Live with Kelly and, according to her Twitter page, interviews with Inside Edition, the Wall Street Journal, TMZ and Glamour Magazine. Attempts to contact Culpo directly were unsuccessful on Tuesday.
After a whirlwind of media appearances, she will dedicate herself to Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the official charity of the Miss Universe organization.
“There’s a lot in store,” she said at the press conference.
Culpo has additionally pledged to support arts education, as the arts helped shape her into a woman worthy of the crown. A self-proclaimed “nerd,” she said that band camp was her summer, every summer. Taking after her mother, who is a professional musician, Culpo has played the cello for 14 years, performing with the Rhode Island Philharmonic Youth Orchestra and the Boston University Accompanietta, and at Boston Symphony Hall, Carnegie Hall and in a tour across England.
After making it into the final five contestants, Culpo explained that her support of the arts is due in large part to the proven academic impact on children. Personally, it helped her focus on the future.
“It’s just a great thing if you’re trying to work toward a goal. You learn a lot about reaching your goals and what you want to pursue,” she said.
When asked her final question, the audience took in a collective breath, with many of Culpo’s Twitter followers declaring that Rhode Island was given the most challenging question of all. Judge Rob Kardashian, a television personality, asked Culpo if she thought it would be fair for a transgender woman to be awarded the Miss USA crown. Twitter followers submitted the question.
“I do think that that would be fair, but I can understand that people would be a little apprehensive to take that road because there is a tradition of natural born women,” she said. “But there are … so many people out there who have a need to change for a happier life; I do accept that because I believe it’s a free country.”
That answer is what Gus Culpo believes was the game changer.
"I think that is what won it for her, as I could not have planned a better answer, nevermind on the spot," he said.
After the pageant, Olivia Culpo said the question was not difficult for her to answer, and that she fully believes in her response.
The interview answer came as no surprise to Christine D. Kavanagh, the artistic director at Bay View who taught both Culpo and her older sister Aurora in a chamber chorale class.
“I thought she carried herself with such grace. She is just a really good person,” she said. “She is a credit to all of us.”
Kavanagh called Culpo “a first class instrumentalist” who was dedicated to honing her musical talents. Kavanagh has been with the school for 29 years, and said that Culpo appeared on screen exactly as she remembers her in the classroom. While she was not surprised at how well her former pupil performed under pressure, she said Culpo was never one to hog the spotlight.
“She’s kind of a shy, quiet gal, but very respectful,” she said. “She is a very genuine, nice person – never looking to be center stage, to be quite frank with you.”
Kavanagh knew Culpo had her sights set on the pageant world after a chance encounter at the mall. The night before the Miss Rhode Island pageant – Culpo’s first pageant ever – Kavanagh ran into her at the jewelry counter of a department store. The two chatted for a while, and Kavanagh helped Culpo pick out a necklace. The Monday after the Miss Rhode Island pageant, Culpo called her teacher to say the necklace must have been good luck.
Culpo has kept in touch with Kavanagh and other Bay View teachers, attending the annual Manhattan at the Bay event. In an earlier interview with the Herald, Culpo said attending an all girls’ school gave her an appreciation for friendship and for surrounding herself with positive, hardworking people. She sought that same camaraderie in the Miss Universe organization.
“I love being surrounded by people who are really dedicated and inspiring,” she said.
After the pageant, Culpo confirmed that she found that close relationship with many of her fellow contestants.
“This is such an honor. I wish that I could have split it 51 ways because everybody that I was with for the past two and a half weeks was incredible and beautiful inside and outside,” she said.
Culpo will represent the United States in the 2012 Miss Universe pageant. In addition, she receives a year’s worth of hair care products, makeup, a new wardrobe, a New York City apartment for one year and other prizes.
Her family is confident she will wear the crown well for the next year.
"I think she is the perfect fit for it, because knowing her like I do, she is really focused, fun and will put others before herself," Gus Culpo said. "I know that pageants can come with connotations, but she truly is a very kind and gentle person."