Miss Utah USA’s first minority beauty queen aims for the best in life

Story and slideshow by CHLOE NGUYEN

Whom do you picture when someone says, “Miss Utah USA”? Do you picture a beautiful, tall, blond-haired beauty? Does the image of the all-American-girl-next-door come to mind? Given Utah’s history of beauty queens, you would have been correct. But there is one queen who does not fit the typical description – Soben Huon.

Crowned as Miss Utah USA on Nov. 12, 2005, Huon is by all means American. She is a native of Texas, but she doesn’t have the blond hair or the fair white skin. She has brown eyes, dark hair and sun-kissed skin. Huon is a Cambodian American beauty with the confidence, right talent and attitude for the winning title.

Since 1952, when the pageant coronated its first queen, 57 women have been crowned Miss Utah USA. But Huon was the first, and still remains, the only Asian minority to represent the title at the national Miss USA competition. She is also the first Cambodian American to win a state title in Miss USA history.

“I was raised to embrace a really rich Asian heritage,” Huon said in an e-mail interview. “At home, I learned the Asian way of life and at school, I learned the American way. I feel as much American as I do Asian.”

And to prove she’s got the confidence, Huon entered the competition for Miss Utah USA. She figured it would be a great opportunity to network if she were to win.

But Huon admits she didn’t expect to be awarded the title. She told her mom, who was in California at the time, not to come to the pageant because she didn’t have confidence in winning. But when her name was announced for the crown, Huon had to find a phone fast, to relay the exciting news. “Since then, I learned never to underestimate myself again,” she said.

Huon was unaware she was poised to be the first minority titleholder for Utah until a friend mentioned the fact to her. “By then, I was already mentally prepared to go forward,” she said. “I took a chance and went for it and figured that I can always walk away from a wonderful experience.”

She believes that if ethnicity had been a factor in selecting the winner, then the pageant would have suffered for its lack of diversity. “A person cannot change where he comes from,” Huon said. “But he can certainly change his ideology and opinions.”

Huon was crowned at the age of 22, when she was a senior at Brigham Young University in Provo – she subsequently graduated with a bachelor of arts in political science and international relations. The beauty queen, now 27, was described as a “very kind and determined person” by the Miss Utah USA organization.

Jessica Whitehead, executive assistant of the Miss Utah USA organization, had great things to say about Huon. “Out of the contestants that year, Soben was the most unique and exuded confidence on stage,” she said.

The Utah USA beauty pageant is a competition that selects Utah’s representative for the Miss USA pageant. With a successful history at the national level, Utah has had 20 placements in the top 15 at the Miss USA competition as of 2009. According to the Miss Utah USA organization, ethnicity does not matter as long as the participant is a citizen of the United States, has never been married and has no children.

“We have had several minorities and immigrant participants in the pageants,” Whitehead said. “I do not think that one’s race, religion or background will determine if they will win the pageant.”

Each contestant is judged in the categories of swimsuit, evening gown and interview based on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest. From there, the top 15 are chosen to compete again in the swimsuit and evening gown segments on the final night. The top five are then selected based on their performance during the onstage question and answer. “We want[ed] someone that will work hard as Miss Utah USA,” Whitehead said. “[And] will represent herself and her state well at the Miss USA pageant.”

Huon has proven that minorities living in America can make a name for themselves in a country where the white majority rules, at least when it comes to beauty pageants. “I think it gives hope to several other people and encourages them to go for their dreams,” Whitehead said.

And although Huon did not place in the Miss USA nationals on April 21, 2006, in Baltimore, Md., this hasn’t stopped her dream and goal of being and doing her best.

Huon moved to Europe in 2009 for an apprenticeship and will be completing her master’s degree in international relations there in 2011. She is currently residing in Berlin, Germany, playing the role of the American expatriate, enjoying learning about the European cultures and sharing her own with the people there.

“There’s something sizzling in Berlin since the Wall fell 21 years ago,” Huon said. And she wants to be a part of the indescribable historical social change that is occurring in the capital of Germany.

Huon plans to travel across the European Union while she’s there studying – she’s even got a “Places to Go before I Get Married” list. She has already crossed off countries like France, Italy, Spain, Austria and Switzerland from the list.

She’s traveling the world, but she hasn’t forgotten her roots. Huon says she’s still very much Asian, as well as American, even with all of the cultures she’s experienced so far. “I feel like I really stick out like a sore thumb at times, particularly when I am the only Asian in a group of Anglo students or when I am the only American in a group of Germans,” Huon said.

But she says in the end, these experiences just make her even more grateful to live in a time where the progression of diversity is occurring nationally, as well as internationally.

Huon says her minority status hasn’t stopped her from achieving what she wants in life. It’s something she cannot change, and wouldn’t want to. Instead, she focuses on things she can change, like doing her best in her studies and enjoying life as it goes by. The sash and crown were a representation of what she worked hard for, Huon said. And she felt the greater Asian community was excited there was going to be an Asian American representative at the Miss USA competition.

Huon believes her win sent a message to the rest of America that Utah is becoming more diverse. She wants to let minorities know they shouldn’t be afraid to be different and never let the fear hinder them from doing what they want to achieve.

“Be grateful that you are living in an age and society where the majority rules,” she said. “But the ever increasing endorsement of diversity paves a way for minority to have a voice.”

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