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Fifteen-year-old Nina Yu takes aim at diversity in the pageantry world

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At the ripe age of 15, Nina Yu speaks with a lot of wisdom when it comes to advice she would give to other women who aspire to compete in beauty pageants.

“This is cheesy, but just be yourself,” said the petite teenager with dark brown waves. “Judges can see when you’re true and yourself and authentic on stage and see when you’re really enjoying yourself. If you worry too much about the other competitors or if you’re going to fall on stage, it’s not enjoying what you have on stage which is such a short period of time.”

Be yourself and enjoy yourself. Seems easy enough.

Inside the Early Bird Café downtown Cedar Rapids on a Wednesday in late January, Yu sits across the table from her mother, Vivian. Yu, of Cedar Rapids, is a sophomore at Kennedy High School.

The only daughter of Chinese immigrant parents to the United States, Yu began competing in pageants about five years ago.

After initially winning titles through the National American Miss platform, she fell in love with being on stage.

When she is not competing, Yu is performing on stage whenever she can. She belongs to her high school’s show choir and has also performed and taught at Theatre Cedar Rapids.

Last year, she performed in “The Music Man” at the Paramount Theatre.

As part of the Miss America Scholarship organization, Yu was named Miss Muscatine Outstanding Teen 2014 in January.

“Throughout my experience with National American Miss, I always heard about Miss America,” Yu said. “I’ve always watched Miss America on TV so I always wanted to hopefully as I was older participate in Miss America.”

Yu has chosen diversity advocacy as her platform. She was recently named the Asian fellow at Diversity Focus and is working with the organization to represent the Asian community.

In June, she will compete in Davenport against women from across the state for a chance to be named Miss Iowa’s Outstanding Teen, a competition for women between the ages of 13 and 17. The winning contestant who is named Miss Iowa’s Outstanding Teen will compete in the Miss America’s Outstanding Teen Competition, which will be held in Orlando in August.

There is a lot of preparation that needs to happen between now and June. But not all of it is “hard” work.

The day after she was crowned Miss Muscatine, Yu got to visit a gown boutique and try on countless dresses.

“It was such a fun time. Who doesn’t want to try on dresses?” she said with a giggle.

This is young woman of many talents. Yu has been playing piano for nine years.

During the Miss Muscatine competition, it was Beethoven’s Sonata that helped win her the title.  She is now selecting a more difficult classical piano piece she will perform during the talent portion of the competition.

Yu said she draws inspiration from other diverse women who have excelled in the pageant world both locally and nationally.

Last year, Yu was thrilled to see another Nina, Nina Davuluri, being crowned Miss America. Davuluri was the first Indian-American woman to be crowned Miss America.

When the other Miss America candidates were asked how they felt about competing, Yu recalls them saying they were nervous about winning.

“I felt so inspired when she (Davuluri) said, ‘I’m just honored to represent the Asian community,’” Yu said. “I think that was a really defining moment to show that she really appreciated her background and wasn’t afraid to show it and I was very inspired by it.”’

In her blog as the Asian-American fellow for Diversity Focus, Yu wrote that she is “blessed” to represent the Asian community.

“Nina has truly inspired me to accept and express my culture and passion, and that should be the only stereotype a Miss America needs,” Yu wrote in one entry.

Yu said she also drew inspiration from Miss Iowa 2013, Nicole Kelly, who was born without her left forearm. Kelly’s platform was overcoming disabilities.

Nina’s mother, Vivian, said she initially wasn’t sure how her daughter’s would fare in the pageant world. Her mother recalled her daughter being the only minority competing in the Miss Muscatine pageant.

But Nina’s victory changed that.

“It also shows that as a minority, you can do something to change the situation,” Vivian said.

Vivian is a strong supporter of her daughter’s aspirations to shine on a national stage. As immigrants, Vivian said her and her husband James’ options were limited.

“All Asian immigrants are mostly focusing on the technology side because that’s the area that is open to immigrants,” she said. “As her generation, I think you are the lucky ones. You can choose based on your interests.”

For Yu, pageantry has it all.

“I can play my piano pieces; I can improve my public speaking skills as I’m talking to the judges during interviews,” she said. “I get great experiences with volunteering for organizations which is always a great bonus to being in pageants.”

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