As Miss Universe, the World’s Top Beauty Queen, Olivia Culpo Champions HIV/AIDS Awareness and Female Empowerment
by Chip Alfred
On December 19, 2012, Olivia Culpo from Cranston, Rhode Island, was named the most beautiful girl in the world. As nearly a billion viewers watched the Miss Universe pageant on television, she beat out eighty-eight gorgeous contenders from across the globe to become the first American in fifteen years to win the coveted title. Culpo accepted the title with her signature poise and composure—and maybe a hint of disbelief. “I’m dreaming, it’s a dream,” she said. “I couldn’t be happier. This is such an honor.” The twenty-one-year-old former college student and model is much more than just a pretty face. She’s personable, down-to-earth, and the perfect spokeswoman to promote HIV/AIDS prevention and motivate young women. “What I really try to get across is my story,” she says, “that you can do anything you want to do no matter how out of reach it seems.”
Culpo’s story is about a bright, talented, hard-working young woman who loves her family and appreciates the value of education. A small-town girl from a large Italian-American clan, she describes herself growing up as “a short, chubby nerd.” The middle child of five, she was an honors student at St. Mary Academy Bay View, an all-girls Catholic school. Coming from a musical family (both parents are classically trained musicians), Culpo is a singer who took up the cello at age seven and has performed at Carnegie Hall and Boston Symphony Hall. “I spent most summers at music camp and I still spend a lot of time dedicated to music,” she tells A&U.
In 2010, she enrolled at Boston University, where she made the dean’s list every semester. During her sophomore year, Culpo made a decision she never imagined would change the course of her life. “I was modeling and studying acting and communications and I knew I wanted to do something in front of the camera,” she recalls. “Over a free summer I decided to try the pageant thing.” She knew this was something that could sharpen her stage presence, and she ended up winning her first pageant—Miss Rhode Island USA 2012. She won that contest in a rented $20 dress with a hole in the back, and she began preparing for the next competition. Less than nine months later, she was named Miss USA 2012. When Culpo was crowned Miss Universe, she had to give up the responsibilities of Miss USA to assume the international title. Her meteoric rise to beauty pageant stardom was startling—even to the stunning titleholder herself. “One year ago I was carrying books to the library,” she notes. Now she’s a high-profile global ambassador making a meaningful contribution to society.
Aiming to empower young women to advance their careers and improve the lives of others, “The Miss Universe Organization wanted to strengthen the company’s cause alliances and provide a signature platform for each of the brand’s three titleholders,” Jackie Shahinian, public relations coordinator, explains. The joint venture, co-owned by Donald Trump and NBC Universal, is an umbrella organization for three pageants, Miss Universe, Miss USA, and Miss Teen USA. “As a global brand, the Miss Universe Organization sought to provide a voice to issues that affect people not only here in the U.S., but from around the world. Miss Universe raises awareness about HIV/AIDS prevention and education, Miss USA works to champion breast and ovarian cancer research and awareness, and Miss Teen USA tackles issues that all teenagers face today.” The organization facilitates another project helping HIV-positive Rwandan women living in poverty. The “trade-not-aid initiative,” Same Sky, is part of an international movement giving women the tools to become entrepreneurs and lead self-sustaining lives. Same Sky trains women in the art of beading to create fine fashion jewelry. Encouraging them to take their beading skills to the local marketplace enables these women to provide financial support for themselves and their families.
Despite the life-altering humanitarian work of Trump’s pageant organizations, there has been some controversy involving former Miss USA winners and contestants. After Culpo won Miss USA, the billionaire entrepreneur and casino owner felt like he hit the jackpot. “You never know what you’re going to get and sometimes it can hurt the brand,” Trump told the New York Post. “With Olivia, we have a major star. What’s different about her is she’s really nice. It’s no act.”
Over the course of her one-year reign, Culpo racks up thousands of frequent flyer miles. She meets people from all walks of life, taking her ebullient optimism with her everywhere she goes, making a marked impression on girls and young women. “Olivia is not only a role model to millions of young women, but also a spokesperson lending her celebrity voice to spread awareness,” says Shahinian. “As a mirror image to her peers, they are able to relate to her and encourage others to spread awareness in their own communities.”
Collaborating with organizations including GMHC, AID for AIDS, YouthAIDS and the Latino Commission on AIDS, Culpo says, “We work with so many international charities. I can go to the home base where this great work is actually being done, which is very rewarding.” Each year the Miss Universe Organization welcomes establishing new alliances with nonprofits in the U.S. and abroad. “One organization that we are very proud to begin working with once again is the Elizabeth Glaser [Pediatric AIDS] Foundation,” says Shahinian. “Olivia’s love for young people and children makes her the perfect titleholder to bring awareness to the pandemic right here at home.”
Culpo addresses the issue of stigma associated with HIV/AIDS by focusing on clearing up misconceptions and shattering stereotypes. “With my title I’m able to influence people and inform them what the truth is behind HIV and AIDS. People living with HIV/AIDS are normal and they’re like any other person. It’s just getting people to understand that,” she asserts. “You can break through any stigma. All it takes is awareness, and the more people we get involved, the greater an impact we can have.” During the Miss USA pageant, Culpo also had the opportunity to show her support for LGBT equality when faced with what was considered the most difficult question of the night: “Would you feel it would be fair that a transgender woman wins the Miss USA title over a natural-born woman?” Culpo had no problem conveying her answer as she embraced the Miss Universe Organization’s decision last year to admit transgender contestants. “I do think that would be fair….today where 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.”
On her first international trip, Culpo spoke to an audience of young people in Indonesia. “In a Muslim country, it’s not exactly standard to be talking about safe sex and sex in general,” she acknowledges. But being Miss Universe opens a lot of formerly closed doors. When asked if her message varies with each audience, she replies, “Maybe the delivery will change. I want to make sure that everything I believe and everything that I say is 100 percent authentic. I don’t want it to change depending on what country I’m in. I want the same message to come across.” It was during this trip Culpo encountered the first embarrassing moment in her new role. “The most surprising thing happened,” she told Hollywood Life. “I forgot my crown at home. That was the most shocking moment of my life. I had just won Miss Universe, my first international trip, and I left my crown!”
With more trips under her belt, she always makes sure to pack her crown and she’s come to realize the influence Miss Universe can have. “For me it’s having this new perspective, having this amazing platform and being able to raise awareness for a number of causes, especially HIV and AIDS,” Culpo says. “It’s being able to communicate with a greater audience and have a real impact. That is so special to me.”
For Culpo it’s also meant making some sacrifices. Miss Universe does receive a high-fashion wardrobe, a deluxe apartment at Trump Tower, the opportunity to attend countless high-profile events, and a one-year scholarship to the New York Film Academy. On the flip side, she has to put college on hold—at least for a year. With a hectic schedule of travel and speaking engagements, the currently unattached Culpo doesn’t have much time for dating either. And when she does, there’s that moniker that can be intimidating to the guys she meets. “They don’t see Miss Universe at first, and then there’s always that awkward moment when they find out, and you have to think, ‘I don’t know if they like me or they just think it’s cool so they can tell their friends they’re talking to Miss Universe.’ But to me I’m still just Olivia,” she remarks, “and I’m going to continue thinking that, instead of the title!”
With just a matter of months left until Culpo gives up the crown to her successor at the first Miss Universe pageant held in Moscow, she plans to continue what she’s been doing and not focus too much on her next move just yet. She appeared in a recent music video for “Amor,” a hit single by Russian pop sensation EMIN, and she plans to pursue a career in entertainment. Culpo sees children of her own somewhere down the road as well. “I want to have a very big family! I came from a big family and I want to continue and carry on that tradition.” As she looks back on the last eight months, she has plenty of fond memories and a few pieces of advice. For anyone affected by HIV, she believes the most valuable thing to remember is, “You’re not alone. There are people that do care and people that are fighting for you every day.” For young girls everywhere, she reiterates her mantra, “Anything is possible if you have the right attitude and you’re willing to work really hard. You can thrive and grow and learn from each other.”
Culpo finds her inspiration in her favorite actress of all time, Hollywood icon Audrey Hepburn, who stars in her favorite film, Funny Face. In the movie, Hepburn’s character, like Culpo, goes from geek to chic in the world of modeling. “She was beautiful on the outside but also beautiful on the inside,” says the young woman with her own definition of what makes someone beautiful. “Beauty is found in the way you treat others.”
Looking ahead, Culpo hopes “the audience that I have now will continue to be engaged with everything that I’m doing. I’ve been able to have a lot of personal connections with people as a part of this work, and it’s something I will always remember.”
Follow Olivia Culpo on Twitter @MissUniverse. Watch Olivia in EMIN’s music video at www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-O8XRo60_E.
Chip Alfred is an Editor at Large of A&U and a nationally published freelance journalist based in Philadelphia.