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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Former Miss Asia Utah says pageantry is more than beauty


Lipstick and nylons fly across the room. Hairspray pollutes the air as women hold down aerosol nozzles sculpting each strand of hair in place. Women glide down runways with chiseled smiles and a glimmer of confidence in their stride. But this isn’t a fashion show, this scene is one of hopeful women competing at local beauty pageants to be considered for a crown identifying them as the next year’s titleholder.

In Utah countless pageants are available for young girls and women to compete in. Pageantry has become a popular outlet for women to get involved in their community, while at the same time earning scholarship money.

Miss Asia Utah is one of these pageants. The program began in 2008 and now takes place every June when the Utah Asian Festival is held in Salt Lake City. Asian women aged 17 to 25 are given the opportunity to showcase their talent and elegance while on stage. The pageant is open to anyone who is at least 50 percent of Asian descent and willing to be a role model for her community and the Asian-American community.

“We believe that these young women have a responsibility to do something in the community, it’s not just a pageant,” said Agnes Higley, chairwoman of Miss Asia Utah, in a phone interview.

Higley said the pageant is a way for women to personally develop. The program helps women gain and maintain confidence as well as high self-esteem. According to the pageant’s mission statement,  participants through this program will be able to foster relationships through friendship and cultural interactions. Higley said one of the main reasons for starting this pageant was the lack of knowledge in younger generations about their ethnic roots.

“There’s a lot of Asian-Americans who were born here, and they don’t know a lot about their cultures,” Higley said.

Women competing will also learn to understand about their own heritage and embrace others in their cultural differences. According to the mission statement, the pageant promotes intercultural unity among Asian-Americans in Utah. Judges pick winners based on talent, national costume, evening gown and eloquence in interviews. Each year different sponsors finance the pageant and provide the winner with a unique scholarship amount.

courtesy of Nicole Abalos

Abalos wins crown and title of Miss Asia Utah in 2009. Courtesy of Nicole Abalos.

Nicole Abalos was crowned Miss Asia Utah in 2009. The University of Utah student and former ROTC cadet says the program is a great way to showcase the diversity and multicultural societies here in Utah. In an e-mail interview Abalos said pageantry brings young women from all over the state to represent their ethnic heritage and unites them in many different ways.

Abalos became involved in pageantry in 2007 when she was given the title of Miss Philippine. Although she is one-half Filipino, one-fourth Japanese and one-fourth German, Abalos was mainly raised with Filipino traditions and also speaks some Tagalog, a major language in the Philippines.

Many doors have been opened for Abalos since her crowning, including opportunities with school, volunteering and even job interviews. Through the preparation of the pageant Abalos says she learned more about herself, was able to gain confidence and the self gratitude from helping others. Winning the pageant gave her not only a window to become a role model in her community, but also was an educational experience.

“The pageant has taught me a great deal about my ethnic roots which include, respect to elders, giving back, and keep traditions through every generation,” Abalos said in her e-mail.

Abalos, now 20, competed for the title of Miss Utah USA on Oct. 22. While she had hoped to receive the crown, for her it wasn’t about winning.

“It’s about finding who you are and why you should be the face or example of communities within the state,” Abalos said.

The Miss USA program is gaining more cultural depth. The current Miss USA is the first Arab-American titleholder. The 2010 Miss Utah USA is Russian and the previous winner was Bulgarian. Abalos says she believes it’s exciting to have contestants with such varied cultural backgrounds competing in pageants.

“This just proves how diverse our country is and the opportunities available to everyone,” Abalos said.

The former Miss Asia Utah says being involved in these competitions helps her learn from many amazing women who live around the state. Although Abalos didn’t win the title of Miss Utah USA, she said she will continue to be a great example and leader.

“I work hard for what I deserve and give back to those less fortunate,” Abalos said. “Hoping to be a role model to younger girls is all I could ask for.”