Miss Minnesota Nitaya Panemalaythong gears up for the Miss USA pageant this Sunday

Nitaya Panemalaythong already has the distinction of being the first Asian American to win the Miss Minnesota pageant, and this weekend she'll become the first Lao American to compete for the Miss USA crown.

Born in a refugee camp in Thailand, Panemalaythong emigrated to the states as an infant in 1986. Although she had never competed in a pageant before, Panemalaythong entered the Miss Minnesota pageant last November in the hope of securing scholarship money for college. Remarkably, the rookie won.

"It's definitely an honor," she says. "I never thought that I would be here. The Asian community has been great to me and very supportive, and so has my family.

City Pages spoke with Panemalaythong about her pre-show jitters, why her hair will be different from the other competitors', and her journey to compete for the Miss USA crown.

How is going out there in Vegas? Are you getting nervous at all?

We just had the preliminaries, and I'm trying to get used to the stage. Fortunately, nobody tripped or fell, but it takes some getting used to walking up the steps in my gown. But I don't get very nervous. I'm getting very excited about seeing the crowd and feeling the energy of all those people.

What have you been doing to prepare so far?

There are three categories we'll compete in: the interview, the evening gown and fitness/swimwear. Just doing appearances and meeting and talking to people [as Miss Minnesota] has prepared me, but I've also been meeting with a woman, a coach, who does a lot of pageants and helps with public speaking but doesn't tell you what to say. For the evening gown part, I've also been working with Brenda Torres, who goes over hair and makeup with me. Everyday makeup is very different from stage makeup and she helps me with that. Most people are doing curly hair, but it's better for me to do straight hair. I'm also doing dark smokey eyes.

What about the swimsuit/fitness portion. Have you had a strenuous workout regimen for that?

I'm probably one of the few who hasn't. I exercise two or three times a week and I eat very healthy. But I actually had to gain weight because I don't eat as much when I'm very busy and my metabolism is very high. I had to eat a spoonful of peanut butter every hour to gain it back.

Have you had a chance to get to know your competitors?

Yes. Everyone's been very pleasant. You hear those stories about people cutting other people's dresses, and it's not like that at all. We've been going out to restaurants and getting to know each other. The girls are really, really nice.

The Miss USA pageant airs at 8 p.m. this Sunday on NBC.

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