When Kára McCullough was crowned Miss USA on May 14, her win was briefly overshadowed by controversy. During the question and answer portion of the competition, the Virginia Beach, VA native sent Twitter into a frenzy when she labeled healthcare a "privilege" and opted to call herself an "equalist" instead of "feminist."
Now that the dust has settled and she's cleared the air, McCullough is almost one month into her reign and taking a little time to smell the roses.
Speaking on her new journey with ESSENCE, she said, "It's totally different from what I came from, but I am having the time of my life. Literally hit the ground runnin the day that I was crowned. Sharing a lot about myself and meeting so many people in the process...it's a great experience."
There's something very put together about pageants and the women who enter them, but sitting with McCullough will put any assumptions you have to bed. Her easygoing demeanor will remind you of the girlfriend you call for happy hour drinks or the one that always has the best fashion advice. And she's adorably in awe of the journey ahead.
"I used to think the people were pretentious and the girls didn't have anything going for themselves, but luckily, I've always been a very open minded person," she shared with ESSENCE.
"I digress in all those opinions, because...you meet women that are so prestigious, women that speak so well, that have straight A's their entire life, you know? If I can attest to that and be an example, I'm hoping people can also keep their mind open and see that pageants aren't self centered. Pageants really do give women an opportunity to create change around the world."
As the second Black woman in a row to win the annual competition (Deshauna Barber was the first), McCullough continues a new tradition of wearing natural hair on the stage. It's a small feat for some, but quite revolutionary for a competition that hasn't exactly embraced textured tresses.
Reflecting on her decision to forgo flat irons, McCullough confesses that she almost changed her mind in the final hour.
"After I saw Miss Universe Brazil and how confident she was in wearing her hair...I realized I can do that, too," she shared. "I know I feel most comfortable and my most authentic self when my hair is curly. And I'm going to be honest with you, I almost had a panic attack during Miss USA where I called my roommate. I'm like, 'go in the back of my closet, grab my straight extensions. They can overnight them to me."
Ultimately, she learned that assertive decision-making will always silence the inner critic and foster a new level of confidence. The ongoing support from her inner circle doesn't hurt, either.
"I had to do that for myself," she continued. "And I'm glad I did. I got to be my authentic self. I got to show people what makes me most comfortable. And I met so many young women...on the street and parents that are like, 'Oh my gosh, you made my daughter love her curly hair more.' And that's what it's all about."
The crux of McCullough's work as Miss USA will be focused on her science program for kids, but the 25-year-old scientist is also excited about the perks of her position. In addition to taking up residence in New York City, she's getting a first hand education on the latest and greatest in fashion.
"What women doesn't want to play dress up?," she told ESSENCE. "I am a very funky, abstract person when it comes to my clothes and I can just tell [my stylist Marquis Bias] I like something...and he comes out with the most inviting things that you'd of never thought went together."
Citing Reiss and Ronny Kobo as two of her favorite labels so far, the newly crowned queen also hopes to get her hands on other runway-ready threads like Isabel Marant. And although she's already armed with adequate makeup skills, the pageant winner hopes to upgrade her beauty expertise.
Speaking on her penchant for perusing YouTube and Instagram tutorials, McCullough said, "A make up artist shared with me once: find the person that has your face structure...That's the only way you can really learn how to do your makeup. If you see someone with bigger lips than you, or bigger face or something, you can't really compare yourself to how they do their makeup. So find someone that has very like features."
And that's ultimately what makes McCullough so perfect for the Miss USA title. Sure, she can dish advice all day, but she's also receptive to what others have to say.
"Deshauna really preached just being yourself and not being-I hate to use this word-like 'Pageant Patty,' someone that is very methodical. She said just be yourself...That's like an admiral quality of a leader. She'd say, 'don't look for the answer that they want to hear, give them something real.' I took that and I ran with it."
Learn more about Kara McCullough here.