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Miss USA 2017 Kara McCullough: ‘Don’t ever doubt yourself’

The second black woman (and D.C. resident) in two years to take the tiara is all about the power of confidence

Women of color have now taken home the Miss USA crown two years in a row. On May 14, Miss D.C. 2017, Kara McCullough, went “back to back” when she became the 66th Miss USA. Army Reserve officer Deshauna Barber, Miss D.C. 2016, won the competition the year before.

McCullough joked early on in the Miss USA 2017 pageant about being “like Drake” in her hopes of being the second consecutive black woman from the District of Columbia to win the crown, and it all came to fruition. Leading up to the competition, the 25-year-old said, she sat down to have dinner with her coach and was asked, “Do you think you can be Miss USA?” Her answer: “Of course,” she explained.

McCullough admitted, though, that she wasn’t fully confident in her ability to take the title. The hardest task, she said, was not strutting her stuff across the stage or answering the judges’ questions (although her answer on health care did cause quite a stir). For the reigning Miss USA, most difficult task was believing that she actually had the goods to walk away with the crown. But she did lean in and brought to the stage an absolute faith that she would be crowned Miss USA.

“Like, this could be yours,” McCullough told The Undefeated. “So go after it, which is a message for women everywhere. Have confidence. Don’t ever doubt yourself. It’s OK to celebrate your accomplishments. Just really have confidence, because no one can hold you back but yourself.”

The job of Miss USA will take McCullough away from her day job as a scientist for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a bit into the world of philanthropy, world traveling and, she hopes, making change. The newly crowned queen is looking to inspire youth and continue making her parents proud. She also hopes to inspire kids everywhere through her personal project, Science Exploration for Kids.

“As Miss USA, I’m really looking forward to going to the schools and continuing to do science projects with the kids. I’m also looking forward to going to high schools as well. Doing symposiums and seminars, maybe helping them with their college essays. Showing them the benefits of majoring in a STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathmatics] subject and the job opportunities that are available while you’re in college, internships, as well as when you graduate. I’m really looking forward to working with the Miss Universe organization on so many aspects when it comes to STEM enrichment in children.”

The South Carolina State University graduate was positioned for success by her love for sports. She earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry with a concentration in radiochemistry. McCullough found a love for playing basketball as a freshman in high school when her family relocated back to Virginia Beach, Virginia, after living in Japan. She was named captain of her junior varsity team and later captain of her varsity team during her senior year.

“I finally had an opportunity to be a part of something, to be a part of a team,” McCullough said. “It felt really good to say I was on the basketball team.”

She also encourages the Bethesda Storm, a basketball team of sixth- and seventh-graders that she coaches with similar messages. What began as an outlet for her to interact with children and give back to her community over a year and a half ago became another love for her.

“I didn’t start playing until the ninth grade, but to see these ladies on the court, it really touches my heart because they’re putting effort into the game and it shows their passion for it. I tell them, those are going to fuel you past the basketball courts. The lessons you learn during practice, I’m giving you to take off the court as well. They were so receptive. I love those girls to death.”

When asked what’s the one thing she hopes to impress upon us all, her answer is simple: “Have no fear.”

Throughout it all, she credits her parents for keeping her grounded and hardworking.

“ ‘You know, KD [her parents’ nickname for her], you’re beautiful on the outside, but you’ve never been a nasty or ugly person,’ ” McCullough said, recalling a statement from her mom. “To hear my mother actually say that is reassuring. My dad called me Monday to tell me about how he went to the cleaners back home in Virginia Beach, and they have an article of me posted on the wall. He told me, ‘You know, my chest swole up. Like, you know that’s my daughter, right? Kara, you really made Daddy’s heart happy. My chest is big, like, my daughter is Miss USA.’ ”

According to the Miss USA website, McCullough’s mother is a retired U.S. Navy chief petty officer. She was born in Naples, Italy, and was raised in Virginia Beach before moving to Washington, D.C.

Two of her responses during the pageant sparked controversy. When asked whether affordable health care is a right for all Americans, McCullough replied, “I’m definitely going to say it’s a privilege. As a government employee, I am granted health care, and I see firsthand that for one to have health care, you need to have jobs. So, therefore, we need to continue to cultivate this environment that we’re given the opportunity to have health care, as well as jobs, to all the American citizens worldwide.”

McCullough also explained that she prefers the term “equalism” to “feminism.”

“I try not to consider myself, like, this die-hard like, ‘Oh, I don’t really care about men,’ ” she said at the pageant. “But one thing I’m going to say is, though, women, we are just as equal as men when it comes to opportunity in the workplace.”

In an interview with Good Morning America, McCullough wanted to clarify both comments, although she was not surprised by the backlash.

“For me, where I work at with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, ‘equalism’ is more of a term of understanding that no matter your gender, you are still just kind of given the same accolades on your work,” McCullough said on GMA. “I believe that if a person does a good job, they should be, you know, credited for that in a sense.”

She added, “I don’t want anyone to look at it as if I’m not all about women’s rights, because I am. We deserve a lot when it comes to opportunity in the workplace, as well as just like leadership positions. I’ve seen and witnessed firsthand the impact that women have.”

Toiaya Crawford is writer, public relations guru and a proud Tampa native who is unapologetic about her love of Beyonce, sports and a good book.