EXCLUSIVE: Asya Branch is ready to make history again.
The 23-year-old, who was the first Black woman to be crowned Miss Mississippi in 2018, became Miss USA in 2020. Now she’s gearing up to participate in the 69th Miss Universe pageant, which will be held on Sunday at Florida’s Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood. It will air in more than 160 territories and countries across the globe.
The last Miss Universe pageant was in December 2019 and its winner, Zozibini Tunzi of South Africa, has worn the crown longer than anyone else.
When she initially became Miss Mississippi, Branch said she wanted to increase awareness of the needs of children of incarcerated parents, citing her own father’s time in prison since she was 10. The University of Mississippi student said she hopes to increase resources and mentors for such children.
Fox News: So how nervous are you?
Aysa Branch: I’m actually not really nervous. I’m more excited than anything. I know that in winning Miss USA, this would be the next step. And for a while, I was kind of numb to the idea. But now that it’s approaching, it’s beginning to feel more real. So I’m just really thrilled. I’m excited to meet people from all different backgrounds and countries and just have the opportunity to represent the United States of America.
Fox News: What do you hope to show the judges this year?
Branch: Honestly, I just want to show them the real me. I want to show them my heart. I want them to connect with me like a normal person. There’s no cookie-cutter mold or anything. I want to go out there and showcase the best version of myself, everything that I’ve worked so hard towards. That’s my goal when I go out there – to be my authentic self and hopefully make a personal connection with the judges.
Fox News: Looking back, how did you tackle 2020 as Miss USA?
Branch: I’m an optimistic person. I always try to look for the good in situations. I think there’s always something to learn during tough times. This was a very unique year and I haven’t had the same opportunities and experience as [previous winners]. But honestly, I was just grateful that I was able to connect with people virtually. Because we were all going through this tough year.
Fox News: How has your faith kept you grounded as Miss USA?
Branch: I rely on my faith wholeheartedly. Your faith will always be tested. It has helped me developed as an individual. I know this is where I’m supposed to be. I’m following in my path and the plan that God has for me in this life. And I believe it is to impact the lives of others, to use my voice to help others. It’s been comforting to know that on good days or bad, I can pray.
Fox News: I understand that growing up you were bullied. How did you overcome that struggle and where does your confidence come from today?
Branch: There was a point in my life when I realized if I didn’t believe in myself, if I didn’t feel confident in myself, then who was going to instill that in me? Who was going to help me find the confidence that I was looking for? I knew I had to push myself because I couldn’t rely on the opinions of others and how they viewed me. I just knew I had to focus on how I viewed myself.
And I wanted to be a very positive person. I wanted to see myself in a positive light. I wanted to look in the mirror and love the person that I saw. So I had to believe in myself. And I guess that’s where the confidence comes from. It was difficult though. But I was never one to really try to fit in or be part of an in-crowd. I want to be authentically myself.
Fox News: You had a very rocky childhood. How did your faith encourage you to keep going?
Branch: Oh, there were a lot of times where I felt like I was at my lowest point. Where I felt like things couldn’t get any worse. I would wonder, “Why is this happening in my life? Why was I in this situation?” I really did get to a low point where I just questioned everything. I didn’t understand what was going on or why things were so bad. I did question God at one point. I was like, “Why would you do this to me and my family? Why do we have to deal with this? There’s no good that could come from this.”
But eventually, once I got past that anger, I turned back to my faith. I learned that everything does happen for a reason. And while I may not be able to see the bigger picture, I believe God has a plan for all of us. And I couldn’t turn my back away from him. I knew that things would work out as long as I trusted in him knowing that he would make the right decisions. I had to be faithful and pray when I felt those doubts. Things did work out, but it took me a little while to come to that point and realize that was the direction I needed.
Fox News: Some people may assume that a person with a close relationship with God is not going to feel comfortable about the swimsuit portion of the competition due to modesty reasons. What’s your stance on that?
Branch: My favorite phase of the competition is the swimsuit portion. That’s where I feel the most confident. You know, everyone is going to have a different perspective on it.
But I’ve always been proud of my body, the condition I’m in, and how hard I worked to stay fit and healthy and keep that lifestyle going. It’s about discipline and determination. And so, when I step out on stage in a swimsuit, that’s what I’m thinking about. I’m showcasing how hard I worked and how disciplined and determined I’ve been to achieve my goals, to be proud of the skin that I’m in.
Fox News: Looking back at 2020 and your experience as Miss USA, what has made you proud as an American?
Branch: I always go back to our liberties and freedom. I’m proud to be a part of the greatest nation and to have the freedoms that I have. I am proud to be a part of this country and to have the abilities and freedoms to do the things I’ve dreamed about doing for so long. At one point, there weren’t African American women competing in pageantry. And I’ve made history as the first Black woman crowned Mississippi. And from there, I was crowned Miss USA. It has really opened my eyes to a lot of different things. I’m proud to be an American because I have these freedoms to chase my dreams.
Fox News: What’s the biggest misconception you feel people still have about Miss USA or pageants in general? What’s the reality?
Branch: I think some people don’t understand the depth of it. I think until you are fully involved… and seeing the work that goes behind the competition, you don’t fully have an understanding of it. Some people may think this is just a beauty competition. But it’s so much more than that. While the women who appear on stage are graceful and absolutely beautiful, they’re so much more to them. They have dreams. They have things they’re passionate about. They’re advocates for different organizations they work hard for. They’re successful in their chosen fields. They have voices waiting to be heard.
These are well-rounded women who understand the world and want to work hard to improve their communities. It may be difficult to see that on social media, all the volunteer hours, how we balance our time to go to school, spend time with our families, be advocates and still prepare and compete at the same time. It’s a true art. It takes a lot of time and dedication. There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears to be part of this experience.
Fox News: What’s the biggest piece of advice you would give to the next Miss USA?
Branch: I think for every individual, it’s going to be a different experience based on your passions, your personality and your interests. I feel like everyone’s experience is unique to them. But the piece of advice that I would give is to go into this experience with an open mind and an open heart. Be ready to step outside of your comfort zone and truly live in the present because time does fly. You will blink and realize that months have gone by. You don’t want to be so focused on the future that you forget to live in the moment.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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