As a relative newcomer in a field of contestants who had been intensely schooled on the intricacies of the pageant circuit from youth, it was only natural for Rima Fakih to feel a bit nervous at the Miss Michigan USA pageant in Port Huron.
Fakih was crowned Miss Michigan in September and will be part of the Miss USA pagent in Las Vegas in April of next year. PHOTO Courtesy of Miss Michigan USA
"I've always followed what my dad told me, and that's "Be yourself," Fakih said.
It was a principle Fakih applied to everything in her run for the crown, from the way she carried herself and spoke in interviews to her style of makeup and the unique-looking dress she bought from an Arab American-owned boutique in West Bloomfield.
And in the end, her plan worked, as Fakih was crowned the first-ever Arab American Miss Michigan USA on September 19.
Fakih talked about how she made an impression on the judges.
"Growing up, my mother (Nadia) and my family showed me what's on the inside is more important than what's on the outside. Instead of spending more money to succeed I concentrated on how I could show them what it really means to be me."
For Fakih, 24, who is of Lebanese descent and grew up in Queens, New York before moving to Michigan permanently in 2003 with her family, it was the realization of a dream she'd had since she was young.
But in her case, the reward of scholarship money and the chance to travel were the main draws. The road to the crown was not without sacrifice, however.
"My family helped pay for a lot of the expenses," Fakih said. "I also had to sell my blue 1998 Ford Taurus. I sold it for $1,200 and used $1,100 for the pageant. With the other $100, I took my mom out for sushi."
Fakih, who graduated from UM-Dearborn in 2008 with a degree in Economics and Business Management, received $100,000 in money toward earning her Master's. Some of the money goes towards things like transportation, a personal trainer, and beauty accessories, but it can also be used towards a degree at the American college of her choosing.
While the awards for winning the Miss USA pageant, which will be held at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas on April 18th, 2010 haven't been announced yet, Fakih knows from past winners that they will be great and allow her to work toward her ultimate goal of using her platform as a pageant queen to help others.
Fakih has been all over Michigan as well as to parts of Ohio and Pittsburgh for charity events, and she also had the chance to compete in Lebanon, Ghana, and the Dominican Republic before making a run at Miss Michigan.
She currently works at the Detroit Medical Center as a sales associate for development and recruitment in the Arab American community and she hopes to own her own business some day, perhaps her own restaurant chain or a community food bank run in a similar style to the Salvation Army but at no cost to the needy.
While Fakih was originally hesitant to compete in pageants for fear of being stereotyped as shallow, she hopes her experiences will pave the way for a new generation of Arab American girls to pursue their dream.
"The reason I never entered many pageants was because I had bought into the negative stereotypes of contests and I was afraid that our community would not approve of it, but the community has been very supportive so far," she said.
"They've been very proud that I'm from their community and ethnicity and that I'm representing our state.
"My goal is to show people that we can go beyond borders and do anything we want because the USA is not about one ethnicity and everyone comes from something; it's all part of the melting pot in the free world."
While Fakih says that the people from Miss Michigan and fellow contestants have been great to her, she has seen a few negative comments on pageant message boards about her ethnicity.
But the comments only serve to add more fuel to her fire as she prepares for her run at the Miss USA crown.
"Being proud of who you are is the number one key," she said. "I don't believe anyone who's fake is going to win. You can look at a person and tell if they're genuine or not."
From studying current events to prepare for the judges' questions to working hard in the gym, Fakih is leaving no stone unturned in her quest to prepare for what could be the biggest night of her life.
She plans to go Las Vegas in April with the support of their family, friends, and her Miss Michigan team ready to present herself in the best way possible and beaming with confidence.
"At the party after I won Miss Michigan, the judges congratulated me and told me I had what it takes to win Miss USA and Miss Universe (the event Miss USA winners compete in); they said I have both the knowledge and the heart."
Fakih's heard stories about the cutthroat competitiveness some contestants exhibit at Miss USA, but she's not going to let those rumors change the way she prepares.
"With Miss USA, it's a big, big competition and girls go in there like they're going to war," she said. "But with me, I just plan to enjoy it with quiet confidence.
"And whether I'm Miss Michigan or President, I believe I will always be the same person and I will always be true to people, especially to my family and those who supported me."