By any measure, Nina Davuluri has spun a compelling narrative as Miss America these last eight months.
She has covered all the bases - from the profound, defending herself against racist attacks and pursuing a platform of cultural competence as the first Miss America of Indian descent, to the ridiculous, being at the end of an ill-conceived "Prom-posal" that got a Pennsylvania high school student suspended.
Monday, on the friendly home boards of Atlantic City, as a new Miss America statue was unveiled across from Boardwalk Hall, Davuluri, fresh from a weekend of posing at the Bollywood Oscars, stood quietly off to the side, waiting her turn, not seeking out any more attention than was necessary, smiling genuinely, but only on cue.
But it was clear that Davuluri had achieved the most sought-after goal of this throwback and perennially endangered institution, which made its epic return to Atlantic City last year: People were interested in her.
"When you end up having Bette Midler and Lady Gaga tweeting in your defense, how awesome is that?" said Sam Haskell, the pageant organization's chief executive officer.
Davuluri, dressed in black pants with white polka dots and spiky heels that she later swapped for flats, said Monday that she felt that her embrace of her cultural identity had changed the image of Miss America, but also that her tour of duty had changed her (and, clearly, left her exhausted).
She said she no longer planned to go to medical school, but would instead use what remained of her $90,000 in scholarship money to pursue an M.B.A.
"I felt that medicine was something I was expected to go into - I felt a significant amount of pressure to go into that field from my family," she said. "In the past eight months, an M.B.A. seemed a better fit," perhaps in nonprofits or international relations.
The statue unveiled Monday is designed to keep Miss America on people's minds all year round. This year's pageant, the 60th to be televised, is set for Sept. 14. The "Show Us Your Shoes" parade will be the day before, with fewer paid seats than last year (many, if not most, of those seats went unpurchased). The local tradition of dragging your beach chair and sitting where you want along the route free (or, alternatively, buying a spot in a rolling chair) will be revived.
Sculptor Brian Hanlon said the sculpture, a 1.25-times life-size likeness of a Miss America holding out a crown for the new winner, was modeled as a combination of the two New Jersey Miss Americas, 1984's Suzette Charles (the chin) and 1937's Bette Cooper, (the forehead), plus Mallory Hagan, Miss America 2013, (essentially the rest, definitely the hair). It offers a natural pose for photos and selfies, under the crown, on the Boardwalk.
Charles was on hand Monday, an unexpectedly emotional homecoming for the Miss America first runner-up, who replaced Vanessa Williams when she relinquished her crown after a photo scandal.
Charles, 51, now of Manhattan, with an 18-year-old daughter bound for Emory University, choked up as looked at the portrait of herself (and Cooper) painted on a Boardwalk building just behind the new statue.
"To have my daughter, who is 18, see this, to come full circle, is very emotional for me," she said. As she assumed the crown with just seven weeks remaining in Williams' reign, she never got her full day-after beach moment. Monday, 30 years later, she was finally escorted to the beach (barefoot, Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian holding her Louboutins) for an iconic shot with the Atlantic City lifeguard boat.
Charles, who grew up in Atlantic City, took a bit of issue with Davuluri's comment that she had changed the pageant's image. Charles said the pageant has long been a positive, supportive institution for women that valued diversity. "There are so many other pageants that demean women. This has never been one of those," Charles said.
Davuluri said that she remembers nothing of her crowning, but that she and the contestants would always remember the reception they received in the days before from a grateful Atlantic City, so happy to have the pageant back. "All these people here have the heart and love for the program," she said.
And about the Prom-troversy, Davuluri said she had heard nothing back from the school after she posted on her Facebook page that she had not been offended by the proposal and was sorry the student had been suspended because of it. He has since appeared on talk shows, accepted a date to another school's prom, and decided to go to his own prom stag. Michelle Obama even teased Davuluri about it when they met. The incident was laughed off Monday.
"Whatever you do," Haskell said, "don't ask Miss America to the prom."
Also laughed off was a question about the organization's modern history of tenuous finances. "Our pulse rate is great, we don't need oxygen," he said. And on to the photo op.