Faron Medhi made history last year as the first Indian American Miss Teen USA, paving the way for South Asian beauty to be accepted and celebrated in teen American pageantry. Fast forward to this year, UmaSofia Srivastava continued the Indian American winning streak by becoming the first Mexican Indian American young woman to win the Miss Teen USA crown.
Srivastava is an exceptional young woman: She supports underprivileged children in India to receive an education through the Lotus Petal Foundation. She's also donated more than 1,000 books to the Bridge of Books Foundation for inner-city kids in New Jersey. Additionally, she’s a polyglot in four languages—English, Spanish, Hindi, and French—of which she wielded her language expertise through writing and illustrating a book called The White Jaguar. In addition to her literary pursuits, she is also a trained pianist and a blogger, where she shares her experience as a young woman of color, and her opinions on feminism and current events.
At only 16 years old, Srivastava surprised me with the breadth of her interests, her vision for her future, and her awareness of social issues. An incredibly eloquent speaker, she shared with me about the night she made history, her thoughts on growing up mixed race in New Jersey, her plans to study international relations, her criticisms of the workaholic living conditions in the United States, her favorite books from BookTok, the way she thinks our education system could improve, the sacrifices she had to make to win the crown, and her latest celebrity crush. Like I said, she’s got range!
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Teresa Tran: Congratulations on winning the crown and becoming Miss Teen USA 2023. How does it feel to have won?
UmaSofia Srivastava: Well, it feels amazing. I think on that stage, I didn't realize [I won] until after it had happened. I looked down and I saw the sash. I touched my head and I felt the crown. But to me, it was so much more than just a competition. I promised myself when I was there that I was just really going to stay in the moment and appreciate it because it really is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. And I know that I am very privileged to get to experience something like that. Now that I have my platform, I always knew that for me, the charity part of it was the most important. So now to get to spend the entire year talking about what diversity means to me, the importance of education, and things that I've worked hard during my reign as Miss New Jersey Teen USA to advocate for on a larger scale is a dream come true.
TT: Last year, Faron Medhi made history as the first Indian American Miss Teen USA. Now you’ve continued that winning streak but also made history of your own as the first Mexican Indian young woman to win the crown. What does it mean to you to have made history like this as a mixed race young woman?
US: I feel like growing up, Faron, me, people who look like us, we didn't have a lot of representation in the media. And so being that for a younger girl when I was made to feel like sometimes I didn't fit in. And coming from the daughter of two immigrants, I've seen them work hard my entire life. They never put any pressure on me, but I feel like I almost owe it to myself to succeed, help other girls and boys like me to succeed, see that what makes them different is their superpower, and know they can use it to help so many more people. This year is really important, not just for me, but for the communities that I represent and people who may have felt marginalized in their lives because I want to show them that anything truly is possible.
TT: What’s something about growing up both Mexican and Indian that not a lot of people may know about?
US: My parents always made an effort to expose me to both sides of the culture. So whether that be religion or the festivals that we celebrate, like Day of the Dead and Diwali. I think growing up around so many different cultures, foods, and people has given me a very unique experience and given me the quality of being very open-minded. And I'm very grateful to have this because I think it's really important, especially in a world where we're more connected now than ever with social media. We have to be respectful to people of different backgrounds who have different opinions. And I think growing up mixed in America is the best way to experience that, honestly.
TT: I heard that New Jersey has the highest population of South Asians in the United States. How do you connect with your community, especially other South Asian girls like yourself?
US: So this is very true. Actually, it's a running joke. The town that I go to school in is called Parsindia, because there are so many South Indian people here. [Laughs] You know, I have to say that growing up, sometimes people from either [the Indian or Mexican] communities, it was kind of hard for them to accept someone who came from a different background because as humans, we're naturally inclined to kind of gravitate to people who have similar experiences to us. Because there are so many beauty standards, especially in the society that we live in, it can be hard for girls who don't fit into those certain molds to, I guess, feel confident in themselves. It can be hard reconciling with your identity here and your identity at home if you're maybe speaking another language. So when I go and read my book [The White Jaguar] to kids at school, a lot of girls do come and ask me, “Well, how did you get here?” Like maybe they experienced racism, or maybe they're uncomfortable in their bodies. I've gone through all of these as well, so I just try to keep the conversation open because I think we can all learn from each other.
TT: I read that you wrote and illustrated your own book called The White Jaguar. As someone who loves to read, I’m curious if you have any strong book opinions. Do you know about BookTok? Any recent favorite books you’d like to share?
US: I love BookTok! Oh, this one was quite an interesting read. I read Bunny by Mona Awad. I’m really into kind of new-age contemporary fantasy. So not so much like A Court of Thorns and Roses, although I do like fantasy like that. But books that kind of turn everything on your head and you're left like saying “What?” I know another really popular book was The Secret History. Loved that. I love any mystery kind of thriller.
TT: Growing up in the current American education system, I found that I was constantly wrestling between reading books for class and not always jiving with the books that were being assigned to us, versus reading books for pleasure and myself. Do you think the current American education system helps to foster young people's love for reading, or can it use some improvements?
US: So after the pageant, I missed two weeks of school. I think that was the most school I've ever missed in the history of my life. And then I got sick with COVID. So I was very behind. And I had a book to read and an essay due on it. I think in America there's almost this feeling that you have to work; we're workaholics, right? The Europeans make fun of us that we're always working. I think we do need to get better with what types of books we're assigning to properly represent history more because I am a historical fiction nerd and I think the curriculum could improve in that area. But I think it’s not so much the book, but how fast-paced we live. It can be very difficult if you’re someone who’s very ambitious and has a lot of hard classes and you have to read all this in a short period of time. But what I found works for me is just taking everything a little piece at a time. While they’re not the most enjoyable books to read, I feel like giving myself some grace stops me from getting to the point where I feel burnout and I don’t like to read for pleasure anymore.
TT: I also read that you ran your own blog called That’s Fan Behavior. Why did you turn to blogging? What were some of the things you blogged about and why?
US: So this was during the summer of 2020. I was at home like everyone else, not really knowing what to do with themselves. I've always been very passionate about creative writing and I wanted to test myself. My blog was kind of the first platform where I talked about my experiences as a woman of color and got to show my personality to people on the Internet. Now as Miss Teen USA, I make Get Ready With Mes, I have to talk about myself, and I don't know what to say half of the time, but that experience with blogging and talking about my life so candidly on a social platform kind of prepared me for this [role]. I've also always been very interested in current events. I'm getting closer to the year when I have to start applying to colleges. I'm going to go into international relations, so that was another thing I wrote about [in my blog]—my opinion on things that are happening in the news, because I think it's very important for young people to stay informed.
TT: I love that! Also just speaking to what you shared, you should take some women’s studies classes in college.
US: Oh my god, I want to minor in that.
TT: I originally minored in [women’s studies] but then I loved it so much, I upped it to a major. You're gonna love it so much. Everything that you're talking about, it's gonna give you everything and more.
US: Yes, definitely. I mean, I'm 16. It might change by the time I get to college, but I know for sure—this is gonna sound so cliche—but I know I want to help people. Whether that is becoming a United Nations ambassador, which is a crazy goal for me, or becoming a journalist like Christiane Amanpour. Both lives seem very interesting to me. Just like Sylvia Plath said with the fig tree, right? You see all these figs and you don't know which one to go after.
TT: The fact that you quoted my queen Sylvia Plath!
US: Fellow Plath fan! [Laughs]
TT: Are there any other issues that affect young people that really matter to you or that you'd like more people to pay attention to?
US: Mental health. It's hard to talk about in Black and Brown communities because it's [a topic] that is very new to our parents. They didn't really have that in their home countries. I did struggle with generalized anxiety when I was going to school. There were days when I was just so freaked out about what would happen. My parents took the time to help me work on my mental health, and I want to make that an available resource for people who maybe don't feel comfortable talking about it at home and have it be something that's offered in schools.
You have to be ready for biases like, “Oh, she's a pageant girl. She's not smart.” And you have to be ready to have that in all aspects, not with just people your age, but [also] teachers, adults, and parents.
TT: We’re in Miss Universe season. I don’t know if you’ve been keeping track. What are some things or costs to being a beauty queen or pursuing pageantry that girls or women may not know about but should?
US: I have to [keep track]! They’re my sisters! [Laughs] The first thing that I would say is you have to be prepared to face a lot of bias. When I was in middle school, I had my braces. I had my glasses. I had the South Asian stereotype backing me up. And I was used to being perceived as, “Oh, this girl is smart.” And I've done very well in school. But when I started doing pageants, I thought of it as a way where I got to express myself. I got to help people. I got to dress up as a princess because I'm a little girl at heart and I don't know what girl wouldn't want to. But then you have to be ready for biases like, “Oh, she's a pageant girl. She's not smart.” And you have to be ready to have that in all aspects, not with just people your age, but [also] teachers, adults, and parents. It was also kind of hard to miss out on the things at school. I didn't have friends for a long time because I was working. When I went to Miss Teen USA, it put into context who was there for me and who wasn't there. I don't want to say out of jealousy or to watch me fail, but I could see after I won, how dynamics changed.
The financial costs you were talking about, it is a lot of effort. I am very grateful to have a supportive family. It was actually my dad who convinced me to compete again at the state level because the first time I competed, I didn't really know what I was doing. There were girls there who had been competing for years and I had just turned 14, so I was very young. I got second place and I was like, “Oh, I'll end it there,” but my dad was like “No, no, no, try it one more time.” And then I won, and I wouldn't be here if I hadn't listened to him. I think as long as you're very careful with what you choose to invest, not only your money but your time.
TT: Some fun lightning round questions: You speak four languages, right? Which is the most interesting to you?
US: I most like to speak in Spanish, because it's so fluid. But the way Hindi is constructed is probably the most interesting, especially since it has a different lettering system than English.
TT: You're also a pianist. What's one thing you love and hate about being a pianist that all pianists can relate to?
US: I love the feeling of getting over a little mistake that only you would know but it means a lot to you because you've been working so hard on it. I then hate the fact that you have to work so hard on it to get over that little mistake. You know how your teacher makes you do different rhythms so you can get over the mistake? That's like my least favorite part. Oh, syncopation. That's another big one. I hate syncopation, but all the songs you learn will have it.
TT: What is one physical object that every beauty queen needs?
US: A cat. [A cat meows off-screen during our interview]. I may be a little biased.
TT: What is one emotional/mental thing every beauty queen needs?
US: Take some time for yourself. All of the girls that I've met are so ambitious, and we're always going, going, and going that we forget to take some time for ourselves because we're always giving it to other people. I think it's okay to be a little selfish sometimes because you need to feel your best to give your best to other people.
TT: Do you have a current celebrity crush?
US: Oh my god, Jacob Elordi.
TT: Are you gonna watch Priscilla then?
US: Of course I am! I am all for vintage Americana. I was a huge Lana Del Rey stan for the longest time.
TT: Do you know how tall he is?
US: Isn't he like 6'5? I think I'm 5'4 and a half, so...Jacob, if you see this article...No, he's way too old for me. [Laughs]
Published on December 6, 2023
Words by Teresa Tran
Teresa Tran (she/her) is an American-born Vietnamese writer and filmmaker based in Atlanta, Georgia, with a background in theater and community organizing. She has a B.A. in English and Women’s Studies and a B.S.Ed in English Education from the University of Georgia and studied British Literature at the University of Oxford. She is currently writing and directing her own short films and working on her debut novel. You can find her on Twitter at @teresatran__.