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She entered pageants as a lark and came home Miss USA

BU student from Rhode Island flabbergasted by win

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By Stephanie Steinberg
Globe Correspondent / July 14, 2012
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CRANSTON, R.I. — Miss USA Olivia Culpo has played the cello with the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras but the Rhode Islander has another, lesser-known talent: tying a cherry stem with her tongue in less than 10 seconds.

“I was actually going to do this on the Kelly Ripa show, but it was cut because it was too boring,” said Culpo, 20, sitting in a white rocking chair on her porch. She demurely spits a folded cherry stem onto her palm.

The Boston University sophomore returned home briefly July 3 — exactly one month after becoming the first contestant from Rhode Island to be crowned Miss USA. Over the next year, Culpo will travel around the country, making appearances at a variety of events and for charitable causes. Her parents and four siblings are still adjusting to the idea that Culpo — the middle child who loves playing Elgar’s Cello Concerto and going to the Coolidge Corner Theatre to watch indie films — has become a national figure.

“She’s probably the biggest news that’s happened in Rhode Island this year,” said Peter Rogina, a family friend who has known Culpo her whole life. He rattled off Rhode Island’s 11 percent unemployment rate and the collapse of Curt Schilling’s video game company, 38 Studios. “It’s a breath of fresh air for her to represent the state and the country.”

Culpo left Rhode Island for the Las Vegas pageant May 16 with enough outfits to change three times a day during the grueling series of appearances and events. She had no expectation of winning the 61st Miss USA pageant. She returned with an entourage: a videographer, a PR representative carrying her crown sealed in a case, and two security men dressed in black suits who stood guard outside. As Miss USA, she also receives a stipend and lives rent-free in a Manhattan apartment overlooking Central Park.

Upon arrival, the $300,000 diamond- and emerald-studded crown was hidden away. Culpo didn’t need it. This is the one place she won’t be treated like royalty for the next year. Her father, Peter, 66, the owner of Boston restaurants The Hill Tavern and Woody’s Grill & Tap, told her as much as she flew back East.

“I sent her a goofy text saying, ‘Listen, your room is a mess. Have the plane stop in Providence because you have to clean your room,’ ” he joked.

In a competition full of women who have trained for pageants since they were young girls, Culpo is an outlier. She had never been in a pageant but decided she wanted to try it after her first year at BU. Her role model, Danielle Lacourse, had attended her high school, St. Mary Academy-Bay View, and was Miss USA runner up in 2007. Culpo had seen pageant contestants like Halle Berry and Maria Menounos go on to have successful entertainment careers — something she wants, too.

“I was thinking I have nothing to lose — just give it a try,” said Culpo, who smiled nonstop and laughed each time a family member peeked out the screen door to see her.

To prepare for the Miss Rhode Island pageant, she spent last summer learning interview skills, exercising, dieting, and “becoming more confident” in herself, she said. Though her parents and siblings — ages 15 to 24 — were puzzled by her new ambition, they supported her. They brought a contingent of 30 people to Las Vegas last month to cheer her on.

“It’s so crazy for my family to sit back and see how that happened because they were so unfamiliar with the pageant world, and then all the sudden I decided I wanted to do Miss Rhode Island, and they just kind of scratched their head, looked at me [like] ‘Really?’ Now here we are,” said Culpo. She will compete in the Miss Universe pageant in December.

Back at the house, the family sat down to platters of lobster rolls and pasta made by her mother’s best friend, Jean Lester, who lives around the corner. Lester offered Culpo some potato salad, apologizing for the carbs. Undeterred, Culpo took two full scoops. She is, after all, a beauty queen who ate a bacon cheeseburger after winning Miss USA.

Pictures of the Culpo kids adorn the pumpkin-hued dining room. A collage of photos of Olivia wearing her fuchsia evening gown, sash, and crown was prominently displayed. Nearby are pictures with Santa Claus and one of Culpo standing back-to-back with her mother for the “Charlie’s Angels” pistol pose. The picture is evidence of her so-called chubby phase.

The family laughed and shouted as they relived moments from the pageant. Culpo’s mother Susan, 54, a viola player with the Rhode Island Philharmonic who has been an extra player with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, said she told herself that “Livie” was going to lose so she wouldn’t be disappointed. But when Olivia answered a question from Twitter about whether transgender women should be allowed to compete in the pageant (Culpo responded yes, adding “it’s a free country”), Susan knew her daughter had won.

Culpo, her brunette hair softly curled around her shoulders, said she doesn’t like to get into the reasons behind her win.

“It’s funny when people come up to you and say, ‘Oh you definitely just won because of your question — not because of your looks or anything like that,’ ” Culpo said. “But I mean I don’t really think of it in that way because I’m just happy that I won.”

Culpo’s sister Aurora, 23, said the pageant was the most “thrilling hour of my life.” She was in charge of bringing signs and accidently forget them, but the group’s cheering made up for it. “We were the smallest state with the biggest mouths,” she said.

They do have pipes. Culpo admitted she hadn’t practiced “America the Beautiful” though she was going to sing it in a Providence Independence Day celebration the next day. So her mother — who missed playing with the Boston Pops July 4 for the first time in more than 20 years so she could see Olivia’s performance — burst into song, instructing her daughter not to go up the octave at the end. Peter, a former professional trumpet player who met his wife when they played in an orchestra together at BU, joined the melody.

“I’m going to get indigestion,” Culpo joked as she got up to clear her plate.

As the meal ended, Culpo chatted with her sister Sophie, 15.

She is contemplating running for her sister’s Miss Rhode Island crown, but said she has to work on her interviewing skills.

“[Olivia is] really good in front of people, and I’m not necessarily sure I’m cut out for that,” she conceded.

And yet, Culpo has proven that any girl can become Miss America, says Ginny Fox, a neighbor across the street who has known her since she was a kid.

“Olivia was just this regular kid who rode her bike and climbed trees,” Fox said. “It’s nice to see a girl who hasn’t been doing pageantry her whole life just walk up and win.”

Stephanie Steinberg can be reached at stephanie.steinberg@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @steph_steinberg.

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