Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Arab-Americans react with delight to Lebanese-American Miss USA

Arab-Americans expressed delight Monday, a day after 24-year-old Lebanese-American Rima Fakih was crowned Miss USA.

"For once, we're talking about beauty and not terror," said Osama Siblani, publisher of The Arab-American News, in Dearborn, Michigan, who knows Fakih and her family.

He and about 150 other Arab-Americans watched the pageant unfold on a 100-inch television screen at La Pita Restaurant in Dearborn, which was packed with her friends.

The place erupted in applause when she took the crown, he said.

"This sends a signal that we're part and parcel of this great country ... this is a part of being American. The American dream is still alive and kicking. Nobody can tell us that a Muslim cannot make it. Yes, we can make it."

"We couldn't hear ourselves," said Mohamad Dbouk, general manager of the restaurant. "Everybody was screaming."

Dancing continued until 2 a.m., said Siblani, who text-messaged Fakih after her victory. "She was very excited."

He said Fakih and her family describe themselves as Muslim. Asked if conservative Muslims might be offended by the pictures of the young woman wearing a bikini, he said, "Only stupid ones. It's like all religions: They have conservative, they have liberal, and they have in the middle."

He added, "If you're asking those conservatives, yes, they'll tell you that it's forbidden. But I'm a Muslim, and if you ask me would my sister wear a bikini or a swimsuit, I'd say yes, of course."

A Lebanese friend downplayed the issue. Though her name is Muslim, "Rima was raised in a family that's moderate, and they practiced both religions," including Christianity, said Rami Haddad, who said he helped with Fakih's publicity campaign in Michigan.

"She's American first, and I don't think religion has to play any role in this."

He also downplayed the impact of the pictures, including those showing a scantily clad Fakih dancing on a pole. "I don't think they are anything bad," he said.

A spokeswoman for Miss USA said pageant officials are not certain that Fakih is the first Arab-American to win the title, since such records are not kept, but she said she thought that was the case.

Either way, Samar Boulos, 23, was proud of Fakih's victory. "I would really hope that she would raise the Lebanese name up high," said the Beirut native who teaches Arabic at Kennesaw State University in suburban Atlanta, Georgia. "Instead of always showing the terrorism part of it, maybe she could show the good side of it, the beauty."

Similar sentiments surged across international borders: "9 years after 9/11. America has a president of Muslim origin and a Muslim Miss America," tweeted Khalid Alkhalifa, the foreign minister of Bahrain.

But it was not all positive. Octavia Nasr, CNN's senior editor of Middle East affairs, said criticism was emerging on some websites. "It's a mixed bag," she said.

Arabs are quick to adopt someone who becomes successful, even if their country of origin played no role in their success, she said.

"Arabs usually flee their land to find opportunities elsewhere. Until they make it, their countries of origin do nothing for them," she said.

Nasr said others took issue with the judges' decision, pointing to one blog entry. "Anyone who says she ain't pretty is lying, but I'm not sure she's all that," it said. "She is a very typical Lebanese beauty, nothing too out of the ordinary, but I may be wrong."

Fakih's victory came as no surprise to Linda Bement, who had just turned 18 when she won the title of Miss USA in 1960.

"I picked her out," said Bement, who watched the program from Salt Lake City, Utah, where she lived then and lives now. "She just looked like she was going to be the winner."

Bement said that though the bathing suits have gotten smaller and the promotional pictures more risque, little else appears to have changed in the half-century since she took home her pearl-encrusted tiara.

"The girls are still pretty," said Bement, who had to return the tiara and went on to work as a model for Max Factor and Royal Crown Cola after her pageant victory. "It's a business, it's big money," she said.

After her victory, Bement too was subject to criticism from conservatives -- in this case from Mormons -- though it had little impact.

"I just heard it secondhand that somebody said a Mormon girl shouldn't be showing her body off in a bathing suit," she said. "But I would say overwhelmingly the Mormons were just thrilled that I won. The president of the church at the time invited me to meet his wife, and I, of course, met with him.

"There's always a little tiny group of people who are even more conservative than the average bear."

Arab-American from Michigan crowned 2010 Miss USA

Rima Fakih knew she had won the 2010 Miss USA title when she saw the look on Donald Trump's face: It was the same one she'd seen him flash at the winners of "The Apprentice."

The 24-year-old Lebanese immigrant — Miss Michigan USA to the judges — beat out 50 other women to take the title Sunday night, despite nearly stumbling in her evening gown.

She told reporters later that she believed she had won after glancing at pageant owner Trump as she awaited the results with the first runner-up, Miss Oklahoma USA Morgan Elizabeth Woolard.

"That's the same look that he gives them when he says, 'You're hired,'" on Trump's reality show, she said.

"She's a great girl," said Trump, who owns the pageant with NBC in a joint venture.

Fakih took top honors at the pageant at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino on the Las Vegas Strip after strutting confidently in an orange and gold bikini, wearing a strapless white gown that resembled a wedding dress and saying health insurance should cover birth control pills.

Fakih was born into a powerful Shiite family in a village in southern Lebanon that was heavily bombed during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. But she and her sister said the family celebrates both Muslim and Christian faiths and prefer to be referred to as Lebanese, Arabs or Arab-Americans.

She moved to the United States with her family in 1993 and attended a Catholic school in New York. Her family moved to Michigan in 2003.

Her sister, Rana Faqih, who moved back to Lebanon a few months ago for a new job, said she spent the night exchanging messages with her father, Hussein, and another sister, Ruba, who were attending the competition.

"It was a beautiful surprise," she said from the family's native village of Srifa in southern Lebanon. "It was not easy for Rima to reach this title."

"We're very proud as Lebanese Americans and as Lebanese that Rima reached this point despite all the pressures and stereotyping about Arabs and Lebanese. She made it. She fought and reached her goal," her sister said.

Pageant officials said historical pageant records were not detailed enough to show whether Fakih was the first Arab-American, Muslim or immigrant to win the Miss USA title. The pageant started in 1952 as a local bathing suit competition in Long Beach, Calif.

Fakih told reporters she sold her car after graduating college in Michigan to help pay for her run in the Miss Michigan USA pageant.

In a moment that was replayed during the pageant's broadcast, Fakih nearly fell while finishing her walk in her gown because of the length of its train.

"I did it here, I better not do it at Miss Universe," she said. "Modeling does help, after all."

Fakih replaces Miss USA 2009 Kristen Dalton and won a spot representing the United States this summer in the 2010 Miss Universe pageant. She also gets a one-year lease in a New York apartment with living expenses, an undisclosed salary, and various health, professional and beauty services.

During the interview portion of the competition, Fakih was asked whether she thought birth control should be paid for by health insurance, and she said she believed it should because it's costly.

"I believe that birth control is just like every other medication even though it's a controlled substance," Fakih said.

Woolard handled a question about Arizona's new immigration law. She said she supports the law, which requires police enforcing another law to verify a person's immigration status if there's "reasonable suspicion" that the person is in the country illegally.

"I'm a huge believer in states' rights. I think that's what's so wonderful about America," Woolard said. "So I think it's perfectly fine for Arizona to create that law."

Miss Virginia USA Samantha Evelyn Casey was the second runner-up, Miss Colorado USA Jessica Hartman was third runner-up, and Miss Maine USA Katherine Ashley Whittier was the fourth runner-up.

Most of the field of contestants from all 50 states and the District of Columbia were eliminated just after the pageant began and the entire group danced onstage to "TiK ToK" by Ke$ha.

A panel of eight judges, including NBA star Carmelo Anthony, Treasure Island casino-hotel owner Phil Ruffin and Olympic figure skater Johnny Weir, were judging the girls throughout the night.

After 15 contestants strutted in swimsuits, five were eliminated. Another five were eliminated after the evening gown competition.

Miss Nebraska USA Belinda Renee Wright won the Miss Congeniality award, roughly one week after her father was killed in a farm accident. Miss Alabama USA Audrey Moore won Miss Photogenic after an online fan vote.

The pageant aired live to East Coast viewers on NBC.

The competition, which is not affiliated with the Miss America pageant, was hosted by celebrity chef Curtis Stone and NBC correspondent Natalie Morales.