Miss Rhode Island Olivia Culpo is congratulated by fellow contestants after being crowned Miss USA 2012 during the Miss USA pageant at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in Las Vegas June 3. (REUTERS/Steve Marcus )
Miss Rhode Island Olivia Culpo is congratulated by fellow contestants after being crowned Miss USA 2012 during the Miss USA pageant at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in Las Vegas June 3. (REUTERS/Steve Marcus )

Looking at her face, it was impossible to say exactly what was going through Olivia Culpo’s mind.

The 20-year-old cellist from Rhode Island had just been crowned Miss USA—beating 50 other beauty queens for the right to represent the United States in the Miss Universe pageant—and her eyes were wide with a mix of terror, ecstasy, and disbelief.

And, really, who can blame her?

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Culpo just completed her sophomore year at Boston University, and folks who know her say she didn’t slack on her studies even as she was preparing to strut across a stage – on national TV—in a lilac bikini and a fuchsia evening gown with a sparkly belt.

“She has this very wonderful way about her that’s very calming,” says Louis Mayhew, Culpo’s academic advisor at BU. “Think about the stress level just being a college student can cause, and then think about what she’s been doing.”

Our attempts to reach Culpo Monday were initially unsuccessful because the Miss USA crown comes with a carefully orchestrated PR offensive that begins Tuesday with an appearance on “LIVE! with Kelly.” But persistence paid off, and Culpo eventually spoke to us on the phone for three minutes after arriving in New York from Las Vegas. (The pageant was held at the Planet Hollywood casino on the Vegas Strip.)

“I was just in shock,” she said, explaining her reaction. “All 51 of those women were beautiful on the inside and outside.”

A graduate of St. Mary Academy Bay View, an all-girls Catholic school in Riverside, R.I., Culpo told us she was short and chubby as a youngster – “a little bit of an awkward stage”—but that has obviously changed. Her father, Peter, is part of the Wilcox Hospitality Group, whose business interests in Boston include the Parish Café, The Lower Depths, and Brian Poe’s soon-to-open Tip Tap Room. (We’re told Miss USA used to work at the Parish Café, and her sister, Aurora, and cousin, Josh, still do.)

Culpo inherited her love of music from her parents, and began playing the cello in the second grade.

“You know, when I thought about it, I thought, ‘Of course she can win,’” says Mayhew, who nonetheless admitted that he watched the Celtics/Heat playoff game instead of the pageant Sunday. “Olivia has a lot talents, including the cello. She’s just a very bright young woman.”

In addition to the swimsuit and evening gown competition, the pageant includes an interview question. But the query for Culpo was unusual—‘‘Would you feel it would be fair for a transgender woman to win the Miss USA title over a natural-born woman?’’- and her response may have helped her win.

‘‘I do think that that would be fair, but I can understand that people would be a little apprehensive to take that road because there is a tradition of natural-born women,” she said. “But today where there are so many surgeries and so many people out there who have a need to change for a happier life, I do accept that because I believe it’s a free country.’’

Asked Monday about the question – and her answer – Culpo said it was no big deal.

“I thought it was really an easy question because it’s common knowledge that this is a free country,” she said. “Everyone has the freedom to choose in this country.”

The demands of being Miss USA, and the time needed to prepare for the Miss Universe pageant, will require Culpo to take a year off from school. There’s a ton of traveling and she’ll also be representing Susan G. Komen for the Cure. But wouldn’t she like to walk around the BU campus wearing her new crown?

“Probably not,” she said, laughing. “I think people would get sick of that.”