The first Black woman to be crowned Miss Mississippi USA is now the reigning Miss USA.
Asya Branch, a student at the University of Mississippi and Booneville native, was crowned Miss USA on Monday, after the coronavirus pandemic delayed the event by several months. She’ll go on to represent the US in the Miss Universe pageant.
Branch shared her historic win with Miss Teen USA 2020 Ki’ilani Arruda, only the second Hawaiian woman to win the teen pageant.
From the stage at Graceland Exhibition Center in Memphis, Tennessee, Branch fielded questions about how to mend the polarized country (restore trust in institutions like the media and government, she said) and gun laws (her family owns guns, she said, but more people should learn how to use them safely before they get their permits).
In an interview with Miss Mississippi USA, Branch revealed her father was incarcerated for 10 years. His experience inspired her to advocate for criminal justice reform, and in 2018 she met with President Donald Trump and other officials to discuss measures to help reintegrate former prisoners into society upon their release.
“I learned a lot about myself, but at the same time, while sharing my story and going through so much but not letting it stop me, I’ve been able to heal while also helping others find their way,” she said in the September interview.
The pageant was originally scheduled for spring 2020 but, like many other large-scale events around that time, was canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Picking up production this fall, the Miss Universe Organization that runs Miss USA followed some coronavirus protocols: Contestants wore bejeweled masks when they were offstage and when they visited landmarks like the National Civil Rights Museum, and audience members at Graceland were told to wear masks indoors and submit to temperature checks, according to the facility. Graceland didn’t mention social distancing within the facility in its Covid-19 protocols.
On hand for Branch’s crowning was Cheslie Kryst, Miss USA 2019. Kryst’s reign was the the first time that winners of the top beauty pageants — Miss USA, Miss Teen USA, Miss America and Miss World — were all Black women.