One-on-one with former
Miss USA Rima Fakih
AS TOLD TO MICHAEL LLOYD
These days, Rima Fakih
has one rule for her life:
Don’t put encumbrances
on her. And who can blame her!
The first Arab-American queen
in the history of the Miss USA
pageant was put under clamps
by the Miss Universe organization
when she later ran for that
title. She was restricted from
speaking her mind about her
culture and heritage. She was
hounded by the media on a
daily basis and haunted
by the fact that there was a
groundswell of narrow-minded
thinkers who wanted her reign
to end prematurely and with
controversy. It was fitting that
we met up with her at an event
at Eva Longoria’s Eve Nightclub
in Las Vegas, where Fakih and
boxing champ Floyd Mayweather
hosted a standing room
only evening. Perhaps it’s “the
gloves are coming off” attitude
that prepared her for a tumultuous,
yet rewarding year as
Miss USA. Read on to find out
how tough–and thoughtful–this
beauty queen can be.
What was the most difficult aspect
about your reign as Miss USA?
Adapting to a situation where there is no
personal life. I have always wanted to be in
the lights, in front of the camera; I love that,
but it was difficult to be under the control
of Donald Trump’s Miss Universe organization,
which also runs the Miss USA pageant.
When you enter that contest, you have no
control over your life. When you become
Miss USA, you become the “property” of
the Miss Universe organization. There is no
having a day off or even choosing what to
wear or even what event you want to attend.
Others make the decisions for you.
You’re on a schedule as to when to even
eat. At the beginning, it was a little rough
for me, but coming from a Lebanese home,
where you are disciplined and you always
have to follow your mom and dad’s rules, it
wasn’t that hard to adapt to.
How was it with your family? Were
they around or were you alone?
I couldn’t keep up with them. They were always
in Michigan, and I was always traveling.
I stayed at the Miss USA apartment in
Manhattan, and my roommate was the current
Miss Universe; I hardy saw her or my
room. I like to be busy; I like to travel. Missing
my family was challenging, especially
with all of the controversy I went through. I
was very afraid that their life would be affected
by it. I have to say that if there was
anyone stronger than me through this year,
it was my family. They had my back, and
they supported me every step of the way.
There wasn’t a moment when they were not
there. They didn’t allow anything to get in
the way of my reign.
We spoke previously about the press
coming after you with the controversy
over your ethnicity. How did
you overcome it and gather the
strength to move forward?
Being questioned about religion and false
rumors about some of my pole dancing
contest pictures was an every moment occurrence
at the beginning. I had to take the
negativity out of it. I remained calm at all
times, despite the times I really wanted to
speak out and talk more about who I am religiously
and how the Middle East really is.
But the organization didn’t really want me
to talk about it too much. Yet through it all,
I kept my culture. I kept making sure that
whatever I said was equal on both sides.
Do you find that people ask you about your religion before they even ask about you?
Yes. They ask where I’m from and what religion
I am before they get to anything really important. One question I really hate
when I am around people from the Middle
East is they want to know “what type” of
Muslim am I. It’s funny because when I
won the crown, the first wave of negativity
was the pictures that I had to clear up, and
then the ethnicity questions started, “Well,
you look Latino, but you name is Middle
Eastern.” The first thing I said was, “Yes, I
am Lebanese, and I was born in Lebanon.”
That gave everyone a shock. Then they
would ask me, “So, are you Muslim?”
That’s because they always assume
that Arabs or people from the Middle
East are Muslim. And that’s not true
at all. Of course, I answered yes, but I
had to explain that Arabs have many
different cultures and religious beliefs.
We are not all Muslim. Then they
asked what part of Lebanon am I
from, and I let them know I was from
the south. I am proud of where I am
from even though being from there
implies a certain political affiliation,
which isn’t true at all. My dad always
said, “You don’t know who you are
until you know where you came
Was the pressure harder from
the American side or the Middle
The American side. Definitely. People
have the perception that Muslims don’t
like me because I have worn a bikini on
stage. What they don’t know is that I have
received the support from Muslims more
than anyone else.
Do you think you said enough in the
time after you were crowned as Miss
USA during interviews, to portray
what your culture is all about?
It wasn’t enough. I don’t think the organization
was ready for an Arab queen to be
crowned. But I was. Before I was Miss USA,
I was growing up in New York in the wake
of 9/11 and dealing with the prejudices
there. Then, moving to Michigan and taking
part in community events, I was always
questioned about who I am and where I
came from. It was very helpful later when I
became Miss USA, to stand up for my
people. Mostly because of my parents
who always taught me that if you are not
proud of who you are or what you are,
then you are not a real person.
There lies the problem with Arabs in
America. They used to be afraid to say who
they are, and now they are ashamed. I
speak with a lot of people from Dearborn,
especially the kids, and when you ask what
ethnicity they are, they tell you American
and refused to acknowledge they are
Arab. That’s a very wrong answer. That’s
one thing that I wanted to teach Americans
during my year as Miss USA: Who
Arabs are; that not Muslims are Arab; that
not all Arabs are Muslim; and we are not
what you see on the news. In my opinion,
Bin Ladin was not Arab and not
The news and television are a big
problem. They make it so that the one
view is all that people know. I wanted to
gain the opportunity to give Arabs the
strength to say, “Yes, I am Arab or I am
Muslim or I am Christian, and I am
proud of where I came from.” You don’t
realize how many people are ashamed
of who they are because of what they
think awaits them if they come forward.
Ultimately, it wasn’t enough, but
now I can speak, where I wasn’t able to
do so before. I had that blockage before
because the organization wanted
me to be American only.
Was the Miss USA pageant surprised
that you were Middle Eastern?
Before I won, I think they thought I was
Latino. Legally they can’t ask you what
ethnicity you are, and they didn’t. All
they asked was if I am an American citizen
and a naturally born female.
When the press made a big deal
about it, the organization couldn’t handle
all of the interviews that came my
way. I went from being a Miss USA to a
celebrity. I don’t say that with a big ego,
but you know you are a celebrity when
the gossip channels are talking about
your love life. I didn’t even know who
these people were I was supposedly
dating. No one seemed ready for this
type of press, but again, I was ready. I
moved through the pageant ranks without
much sponsorship or help from anyone
outside of my family. Most people
thought I was crazy and there was no
way an Arab could win Miss USA. When
I went there I was Rima Fakih. I didn’t
enter the pageant to say I was an Arab.
I was just me. I am happy that I proved
we can go to Hollywood, we can win
Miss USA. There is nothing really to hold
us back but ourselves.
It was frustrating as we traveled to
China, Germany, the Dominican Republic,
Mexico and Brazil, because I
wanted to elevate the perception of
the Middle Eastern culture. But every
time I tried, I was told by the organization
not to say “that stuff.” I was Miss USA as
an American only, with as little reference
to heritage as possible. I felt that they did
not want to admit that Arabs in the United
States were among the most successful
and wildly different from the negative images
seen on TV.
Do you think they feared the
reaction of the public?
I believe they were afraid of the reaction
of the American people, yes. People think
that I didn’t make the top 15 later at Miss
Universe because I didn’t do well. But
what I was told, top secretly, is that I lost
because I was an Arab and a Muslim. I felt
like I was treated differently from everybody
else. It was completely opposite of
my experience at Miss USA.
The first thing you do at Miss Universe,
same as Miss USA, is you conduct a oneon-
one session with the preliminary
judges. The order is alphabetical, so Miss
USA goes towards the end. By the time it
was my turn, I was already able to speak
with some of the other contestants including
Miss Albania, Miss Mexico and Miss
Puerto Rico. All the girls told me the standard
questions were, ‘If you wanted to go
to any other country, where would you
go?” And “If you were an animal, what
would you be?” I was the only contestant
who had a question that was specific to my
heritage. They wanted to know about the
New York City mosque situation at Ground
Zero, and then they wanted to know if I was
fasting because it was Ramadan. They also
asked which side would I choose if I had to
make a choice between the Middle East
and the United States. This went on and
on. We will never know if it really affected
The prejudice I faced was from Conservative
America, people who felt that to be
Miss USA, you had to be the stereotypical
blond, blue-eyed Christian. Or you can be
a mix of French, Irish and Italian. Why is
I must admit that the Miss Universe organization
backed me up to say what I
wanted at the end. In my final speech, as I
passed the Miss USA crown to my successor,
I said that being a Muslim woman is
important, and they wanted me to say that.
To her credit, Paula Shugart, the president
of Miss Universe, said, “Rima, in my eyes,
you are the unofficial ambassador of the
Middle East.” So, they did back me up. But
why did they? They did so because I was
educated, I knew what I was talking about
and that I was a true American. At the end,
they understood that this country is built on
immigrants. Everyone comes from somewhere.
Without immigrants, America
would not be America. They could trust me
and told me that I made the title of Miss
USA that much more important.
At that point, I didn’t feel for one second
that the Miss Universe organization
was racist. They may have been attacked
just as much as I was. CNN and BBC Arabian
gave the organization and me a heck
of a time in my interviews.
Whether it was the media here or from
other countries asking how they could let
an Arab Muslim win, I told Paula and my
manager that I could clear this up right now.
In my very next interview, I said that the
world and America should be just like the
Miss USA pageant, where no one is questioned
about what ethnicity they are or
what religion they are. The only judgment
is what kind of person you are, what you
have done in your life, if you are educated
and if you can represent the USA in a proud
manner. It got a little easier from there.
Did this prejudice extend beyond
After my reign ended, I went for several
movie auditions in Hollywood, and during
the audition, I was told by a few directors
that I would get more roles if I had a Spanish
accent. One mockingly asked if I believed
in Allah. If people strived to be like
the Miss USA pageant people, there
would be fewer problems. I wanted to say,
“Look at me for who I am, and let’s work
One thing I noticed from your publisher
is her signature quote, “Humanity
has no nationality.” That should be trademarked
and used by everyone. I would
have had an easier time if everyone
thought that way.
How is your relationship with
What most people don’t know is that Mr.
Trump thinks very highly of me. He told all
the 2010 contestants, “All of you have big
shoes to fill, and I don’t think any of you
can fill Rima’s shoes. I’ve had my good
Miss USA’s, and I have had my okay Miss
USA’s and I’ve never had a favorite until
Rima came along.”
When I see him, his wife and his family,
they treat me like one of them; like family.
I know he loves me, and I love him.
What was your most rewarding
When I went to Egypt, crowds of people
said, “Mabrouk (congratulations) to us.
They weren’t saying congratulations to
me; it was for themselves that they were
happy. I was told over and over again that
we finally have someone to be proud of in
the United States from our heritage. People
can see we are not the bad people that
CNN and Fox show us to be.
And what does the future hold?
I have a vision of working with Mr. Trump
about rebuilding the Middle East. He has
told me that there is a strong possibility
that this could be a reality.