A QUEEN SPEAKS OUT: One-on-one with former Miss USA Rima Fakih
Article can also be read at ALO magazine story link
These days, Rima Fakih has one rule for her life: Don’t put encumbrances on her. And who can blame her! The first Arab-American queen in the history of the Miss USA pageant was put under clamps by the Miss Universe organization when she later ran for that title. She was restricted from speaking her mind about her culture and heritage. She was hounded by the media on a daily basis and haunted by the fact that there was a groundswell of narrow-minded thinkers who wanted her reign to end prematurely and with controversy. It was fitting that we met up with her at an event at Eva Longoria’s Eve Nightclub in Las Vegas, where Fakih and boxing champ Floyd Mayweather hosted a standing room only evening. Perhaps it’s “the gloves are coming off” attitude that prepared her for a tumultuous, yet rewarding year as Miss USA. Read on to find out how tough–and thoughtful–this beauty queen can be.
MEDIA GUY: What was the most difficult aspect about your reign as Miss USA?
RIMA FAKIH: Adapting to a situation where there is no personal life. I have always wanted to be in the lights, in front of the camera; I love that, but it was difficult to be under the control of Donald Trump’s Miss Universe organization, which also runs the Miss USA pageant. When you enter that contest, you have no control over your life. When you become Miss USA, you become the “property” of the Miss Universe organization. There is no having a day off or even choosing what to wear or even what event you want to attend. Others make the decisions for you. You’re on a schedule as to when to even eat. At the beginning, it was a little rough for me, but coming from a Lebanese home, where you are disciplined and you always have to follow your mom and dad’s rules, it wasn’t that hard to adapt to.
MG: How was it with your family? Were they around or were you alone?
RF: I couldn’t keep up with them. They were always in Michigan, and I was always traveling. I stayed at the Miss USA apartment in Manhattan, and my roommate was the current Miss Universe; I hardy saw her or my room. I like to be busy; I like to travel. Missing my family was challenging, especially with all of the controversy I went through. I was very afraid that their life would be affected by it. I have to say that if there was anyone stronger than me through this year, it was my family. They had my back, and they supported me every step of the way. There wasn’t a moment when they were not there. They didn’t allow anything to get in the way of my reign.
MG: We spoke previously about the press coming after you with the controversy over your ethnicity. How did you overcome it and gather the strength to move forward?
RF: Being questioned about religion and false rumors about some of my pole dancing contest pictures was an every moment occurrence at the beginning. I had to take the negativity out of it. I remained calm at all times, despite the times I really wanted to speak out and talk more about who I am religiously and how the Middle East really is. But the organization didn’t really want me to talk about it too much. Yet through it all, I kept my culture. I kept making sure that whatever I said was equal on both sides.
MG: Do you find that people ask you about your religion before they even ask about you?
RF: Yes. They ask where I’m from and what religion I am before they get to anything really important. One question I really hate when I am around people from the Middle East is they want to know “what type” of Muslim am I. It’s funny because when I won the crown, the first wave of negativity was the pictures that I had to clear up, and then the ethnicity questions started, “Well, you look Latino, but you name is Middle Eastern.” The first thing I said was, “Yes, I am Lebanese, and I was born in Lebanon.” That gave everyone a shock. Then they would ask me, “So, are you Muslim?” That’s because they always assume that Arabs or people from the Middle East are Muslim. And that’s not true at all. Of course, I answered yes, but I had to explain that Arabs have many different cultures and religious beliefs. We are not all Muslim. Then they asked what part of Lebanon am I from, and I let them know I was from the south. I am proud of where I am from even though being from there implies a certain political affiliation, which isn’t true at all. My dad always said, “You don’t know who you are until you know where you came from.”
MG: Was the pressure harder from the American side or the Middle Eastern side?
RF: The American side. Definitely. People have the perception that Muslims don’t like me because I have worn a bikini on stage. What they don’t know is that I have received the support from Muslims more than anyone else.
MG: Do you think you said enough in the time after you were crowned as Miss USA during interviews, to portray what your culture is all about?
RF: It wasn’t enough. I don’t think the organization was ready for an Arab queen to be crowned. But I was. Before I was Miss USA, I was growing up in New York in the wake of 9/11 and dealing with the prejudices there. Then, moving to Michigan and taking part in community events, I was always questioned about who I am and where I came from. It was very helpful later when I became Miss USA, to stand up for my people. Mostly because of my parents who always taught me that if you are not proud of who you are or what you are, then you are not a real person.
There lies the problem with Arabs in America. They used to be afraid to say who they are, and now they are ashamed. I speak with a lot of people from Dearborn, especially the kids, and when you ask what ethnicity they are, they tell you American and refused to acknowledge they are Arab. That’s a very wrong answer. That’s one thing that I wanted to teach Americans during my year as Miss USA: Who Arabs are; that not Muslims are Arab; that not all Arabs are Muslim; and we are not what you see on the news. In my opinion, Bin Ladin was not Arab and not Muslim.
The news and television are a big problem. They make it so that the one view is all that people know. I wanted to gain the opportunity to give Arabs the strength to say, “Yes, I am Arab or I am Muslim or I am Christian, and I am proud of where I came from.” You don’t realize how many people are ashamed of who they are because of what they think awaits them if they come forward.
Ultimately, it wasn’t enough, but now I can speak, where I wasn’t able to do so before. I had that blockage before because the organization wanted me to be American only.
MG: Was the Miss USA pageant surprised that you were Middle Eastern?
RF: Before I won, I think they thought I was Latino. Legally they can’t ask you what ethnicity you are, and they didn’t. All they asked was if I am an American citizen and a naturally born female.
When the press made a big deal about it, the organization couldn’t handle all of the interviews that came my way. I went from being a Miss USA to a celebrity. I don’t say that with a big ego, but you know you are a celebrity when the gossip channels are talking about your love life. I didn’t even know who these people were I was supposedly dating. No one seemed ready for this type of press, but again, I was ready. I moved through the pageant ranks without much sponsorship or help from anyone outside of my family. Most people thought I was crazy and there was no way an Arab could win Miss USA. When I went there I was Rima Fakih. I didn’t enter the pageant to say I was an Arab. I was just me. I am happy that I proved we can go to Hollywood, we can win Miss USA. There is nothing really to hold us back but ourselves.
It was frustrating as we traveled to China, Germany, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Brazil, because I wanted to elevate the perception of the Middle Eastern culture. But every time I tried, I was told by the organization not to say “that stuff.” I was Miss USA as an American only, with as little reference to heritage as possible. I felt that they did not want to admit that Arabs in the United States were among the most successful and wildly different from the negative images seen on TV.
MG: Do you think they feared the reaction of the public?
RF: I believe they were afraid of the reaction of the American people, yes. People think that I didn’t make the top 15 later at Miss Universe because I didn’t do well. But what I was told, top secretly, is that I lost because I was an Arab and a Muslim. I felt like I was treated differently from everybody else. It was completely opposite of my experience at Miss USA.
MG: How so?
RF: The first thing you do at Miss Universe, same as Miss USA, is you conduct a one-on-one session with the preliminary judges. The order is alphabetical, so Miss USA goes towards the end. By the time it was my turn, I was already able to speak with some of the other contestants including Miss Albania, Miss Mexico and Miss Puerto Rico. All the girls told me the standard questions were, ‘If you wanted to go to any other country, where would you go?” And “If you were an animal, what would you be?” I was the only contestant who had a question that was specific to my heritage. They wanted to know about the New York City mosque situation at Ground Zero, and then they wanted to know if I was fasting because it was Ramadan. They also asked which side would I choose if I had to make a choice between the Middle East and the United States. This went on and on. We will never know if it really affected the outcome.
The prejudice I faced was from Conservative America, people who felt that to be Miss USA, you had to be the stereotypical blond, blue-eyed Christian. Or you can be a mix of French, Irish and Italian. Why is this okay?
I must admit that the Miss Universe organization backed me up to say what I wanted at the end. In my final speech, as I passed the Miss USA crown to my successor, I said that being a Muslim woman is important, and they wanted me to say that. To her credit, Paula Shugart, the president of Miss Universe, said, “Rima, in my eyes, you are the unofficial ambassador of the Middle East.” So, they did back me up. But why did they? They did so because I was educated, I knew what I was talking about and that I was a true American. At the end, they understood that this country is built on immigrants. Everyone comes from somewhere. Without immigrants, America would not be America. They could trust me and told me that I made the title of Miss USA that much more important.
At that point, I didn’t feel for one second that the Miss Universe organization was racist. They may have been attacked just as much as I was. CNN and BBC Arabian gave the organization and me a heck of a time in my interviews.
Whether it was the media here or from other countries asking how they could let an Arab Muslim win, I told Paula and my manager that I could clear this up right now. In my very next interview, I said that the world and America should be just like the Miss USA pageant, where no one is questioned about what ethnicity they are or what religion they are. The only judgment is what kind of person you are, what you have done in your life, if you are educated and if you can represent the USA in a proud manner. It got a little easier from there.
MG: Did this prejudice extend beyond the media?
RF: After my reign ended, I went for several movie auditions in Hollywood, and during the audition, I was told by a few directors that I would get more roles if I had a Spanish accent. One mockingly asked if I believed in Allah. If people strived to be like the Miss USA pageant people, there would be fewer problems. I wanted to say, “Look at me for who I am, and let’s work together.”
One thing I noticed from your publisher is her signature quote, “Humanity has no nationality.” That should be trademarked and used by everyone. I would have had an easier time if everyone thought that way.
MG: How is your relationship with Donald Trump?
RF: What most people don’t know is that Mr.Trump thinks very highly of me. He told all the 2011 contestants, “All of you have big shoes to fill, and I don’t think any of you can fill Rima’s shoes. I’ve had my good Miss USA’s, and I have had my okay Miss USA’s and I’ve never had a favorite until Rima came along.”
When I see him, his wife and his family, they treat me like one of them; like family. I know he loves me, and I love him.
MG: What was your most rewarding experience?
RF: When I went to Egypt, crowds of people said, “Mabrouk (congratulations) to us. They weren’t saying congratulations to me; it was for themselves that they were happy. I was told over and over again that we finally have someone to be proud of in the United States from our heritage. People can see we are not the bad people that CNN and Fox show us to be.
MG: And what does the future hold?
RF: I have a vision of working with Mr. Trump about rebuilding the Middle East. He has told me that there is a strong possibility that this could be a reality.