Words by Vik Chopra
If you’re not yet familiar with the force of nature that is Manju Bangalore, don’t worry—you will be soon. In a world where so many people strive to be everything to everyone, Bangalore embodies the title of multi-hyphenate with effortless intelligence, class, wisdom, grace, and beauty. From being an activist who founded and runs two nonprofits, to an astronaut in-training, to a pageant queen about to compete for the title of Miss USA, to a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, not to mention a working actor who has shared the screen with queen Beyonce herself, Bangalore is ready for world domination.
Born to parents who immigrated to the United States from South India—her father in the ‘60s and mother in the ‘90s—Bangalore grew up in the rural town of Tangent, Oregon, and was exposed to science and agriculture from a very young age. Phani and Geetha Bangalore, her father and mother, owned and operated a seed-testing lab, which acted as a second home to young Manju. It was here she witnessed her parents’ strong work ethic; one that she emulates to this very day. Her mother’s story is especially inspiring to her.
“My mom was born in South India and she became a lawyer for the State Court of Karnataka as a lawyer and as a professor. And then her parents basically said, ‘This is great and all, but you’re a woman and need to get married,’” Bangalore explains. “And so they shipped her off to the U.S. to get married to my dad.” Unable to obtain her law license in a new country, Geetha Bangalore joined her husband’s business and got certified as a registered seed technician. It’s a notoriously difficult testing process requiring the memorization of thousands of seeds, and she passed on her first attempt.
It’s clear that Geetha Bangalore’s grit and determination were passed onto Manju, because like her mom, she has faced seemingly insurmountable circumstances, and leaps over them simply because she believes that she can and knows it’s right. When Trayvon Martin was murdered in her senior year of high school, it was the first time she saw the civil rights movement in action, and “I understood that whatever I was going to do in that moment was what I would have done in the 1960s. I needed to take action because it was the right thing to do.” Bangalore attended her first Black Lives Matter protest and this was the start of her work as an activist. The next thing she did was to help get a law passed to ban conversion therapy in Oregon by organizing a petition and testifying in front of the Oregon State Legislature. Bangalore, who identifies as queer and pansexual, was moved into action by the suicide of transgender teen Leelah Alcorn. This was when she realized “change is possible. We can take material actions to change the world.”
“I understood that whatever I was going to do in that moment was what I would have done in the 1960s. I needed to take action because it was the right thing to do.”
Bangalore then went on to organize and protest for March for Our Lives, and has started two nonprofits, Operation Period and Painting with Parkinson’s. Operation Period, or OP, was founded to address the lack of access to menstrual products around the globe, and has since expanded to encompass the mission of Menstrual Freedom, which includes starting a virtual youth institute and tackles systemic causes such as the prison industrial complex, mass incarceration, gender justice, transphobia and racism. Bangalore was inspired to start Painting with Parkinson’s by her dad, who has lived with the disease for about 15 years. Being one of his primary caregivers, she wanted to find a way to reconnect him with his artistic side, and found that painting helps with mood and tremors. The organization provides free painting kits and offers monthly art classes via Zoom.
If changing the world wasn’t enough, Bangalore is also actively pursuing a career in space exploration. As a child, her parents would take her to the Evergreen Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon, which sparked her lifelong love of all things outer space. As a freshman at the University of Oregon, she applied for about 100 NASA internships and got denied by every single one. But shortly after, the Oregon Space Grant Consortium reached out based on her determination and offered to help place her at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where she worked on propulsion systems. This was her springboard, which then led to an internship at the White House for four months, where she was introduced to South Asian astronaut Sunita Williams, who helped get her an interview at the NASA Astronaut Office at the Rapid Prototyping Lab. Bangalore worked on cockpit displays for the Orion Spacecraft, which just recently launched into space. She is now training with the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences (IIAS), which can help place her with a commercial space flight company such as Blue Horizon or Virgin Galactic, and is scheduled for her first microgravity flight in April.
“It’s one thing to recruit and have those numbers, but if you’re not retaining them, to have those numbers after a couple of months or years, you’re not fostering a safe environment for them.”
Of her decision to move away from NASA, Bangalore shares this: “One thing we’ve been doing well as a society is recruiting more women and people of color into STEM. I don’t think we’ve been doing enough at retaining [them]. It’s one thing to recruit and have those numbers, but if you’re not retaining them, to have those numbers after a couple of months or years, you’re not fostering a safe environment for them. At NASA I had many, many highs, but I also had lows, where I was subjected to racism and sexism. It was never from any of my mentors, it was from peers. But it was moments like that that I realized it wasn’t the work environment I wanted to be in for the next 30 years. And it was really inappropriate behavior and the reporting structure wasn’t sufficient enough to handle the feedback. The [IIAS] is so cognizant of gender justice and racial justice, we have very open conversations about retaining talent and students and making sure they feel safe and welcome.”
Racism and sexism were not foreign concepts to Bangalore. From her parents being denied housing due to their skin color when they moved to Oregon, to being discriminated against by her peers for being a darker skinned girl, these are issues she has been facing all of her life, issues that forced her to disconnect from her South Asian identity for many years. Bangalore is also very open about her struggles with mental health and shares her personal journey quite often on social media. She shares a painful and heartbreaking moment in college where she was sexually assaulted at a fraternity party, which triggered her struggles with depression. For those struggling like she did, she wants them to know “it does get better with the right support and resources. And getting access is very difficult in American society. You are in control of your mental health more than you’re told. A diagnosis shouldn’t rob you of your agency or autonomy. There was a reason for my depression. I encourage everyone to learn more about their diagnosis so they can live life on their own terms.”
Now, as a strong, confident South Asian woman, she embraces her looks, her identity and her culture. And she is committed to breaking down barriers and forging her own path. This is why last year, she submitted herself and was chosen as the first South Asian Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue finalist to be featured in the magazine, and was invited to walk in Miami Swim Week. Every year, Sports Illustrated opens up their submission process for the famous issue to anyone who wants to apply. “The theme was ‘be the change you want to see,’ and I felt like that spoke to me. It’s how I try to live my life. The submission process never required you to be in a bikini. The whole process was just so affirming,” she says.
Though she didn’t have to bare all for her SI application, Bangalore’s comfortable in her skin after her extensive pageantry experience growing up. She has competed in both the Miss USA and Miss World systems multiple years now, and has always made semi-finals but never won the crown. Last October, she decided to give it one last try for the title of Miss Oregon USA. She went in knowing she would give it her all, but she didn’t think she would walk away with the title. When she did, in fact, win, she became the first South Asian woman to win the title, and she’ll go on to compete at Miss USA 2023 later this year (date TBD).
And if modeling and pageants weren’t enough for this trailblazer, Bangalore is also a working actor who has guest starred on General Hospital and Animal Kingdom, and is gearing up to shoot a TV pilot in April in L.A. She can’t share many details about the project, but she’s able to reveal that it focuses on five main characters who all live and work on the same block, and how they each find magic in the mundane. Bangalore is excited to play a South Asian supporting character who has the potential to become a lead if the show gets picked up. She does say her favorite acting opportunity came when she was chosen by queen Beyonce herself to appear in the video for “Brown Skin Girl.” Bangalore says the entire shoot was especially meaningful to her because there were so many BIPOC women on set, and was starstruck at the sight of Beyonce, who she says was “very cool” and even came up and spoke to her during the shoot.
To hear Bangalore discuss her endless projects, pursuits, and passions is a unique privilege, as it is clear she is a powerful South Asian woman on the path to greatness. But she doesn’t think of herself as having innate power. “I’m a queer, darker, South Asian girl that’s first gen, all these identities I have…it’s more about taking power and creating a seat at the table. More of ‘I will not accept that,’” she says. “A lot of my power has come from not taking ‘no’ for an answer in situations where it’s a question of creating a better future. We are not going to accept what the status quo is moving forward. And also having a ridiculous amount of belief in yourself.”
Recently, one of her friends jokingly said “Facts don’t stop her.” And in speaking to Bangalore from her home in Oregon, you understand that this is the perfect phrase to describe her. “Slavery was a fact. Colonization was a fact. Segregation was a fact. I want a better world,” she says. “I want a brighter world for us. [A quote that resonates with me is] ‘hope is a discipline’ by prominent prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba. It’s a reminder that it’s a privilege to lose hope. I don’t think you can afford to lose hope if you’re marginalized because you have to believe there’s a better world out there for you and your community. Every day you have to make the conscious choice to be hopeful. There have been so many elders, so many of my ancestors who have fought for a better world, so who gave me the right to stop fighting for that? Who gave me the right to give up. I don’t have the right to give up. You have to make it a discipline every day. Every day I’m going to fight for it.”
Published on March 7, 2023