This article originally appeared in "Bay View Today," a publication of Bay View Academy and was posted with permission.
When Olivia Culpo was crowned Miss USA in June 2012 and took the victory walk down the runway, she was carrying with her the pride of St. Mary Academy Bay View, Boston University, a struggling Rhode Island--desperate for some good news, her hometown of Cranston, and her family who thought she was a long-shot from the beginning. The curious question was: “What role did Bay View’s single-gender education and experience play in this stunning achievement of one of it’s talented graduates?” After all, Olivia became the first Rhode Island woman to win this honor in the pageant’s 61-year history.
Olivia’s parents, Susan and Peter Culpo, make it clear. Olivia wouldn’t have achieved this without her Bay View experience from 8th grade through upper school. Susan has a pretty good sense of this since, at one time, the Culpos had their five children in five different schools. They could have sent their three daughters to any school in the region. They chose Bay View because of its educational reputation, firm structure and its spirituality that touches these young women. The Culpos eldest daughter Aurora graduated from Bay View in 2007 and Olivia in 2010. Their third daughter, Sophie, is a sophomore. The Culpos say all three of their children are very different and thrived at Bay View.
In talking about Olivia and her Miss USA title, Susan and Peter believe Olivia’s remarkable success is due largely to:
- The cello
- Being comfortable around highly talented and competitive women
- Unflinching determination
- Bay View’s history of developing spirited, independent-minded women
In a reflective moment, Susan confided, “I think my girls are much more confident than I was...not embarrassed about being able to talk about women’s issues. I look at my girls and they are strong! I admire that. It’s something that I wished I had growing up, actually.”
So how did the cello play a key role for Olivia in the pageant--a pageant without a talent competition? Olivia is an accomplished cellist. She has played with the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra and other well-known classical music organizations. Bay View frequently tapped her to play the cello at school Masses, funerals, graduations and special events. Susan believes all these performances over the years in front of her peers--the toughest audience of all--gave her confidence, poise and an easiness in appearing before large crowds, as she did in the competition.
Bay View’s rigorous educational program which draws high-performing students from the region creates an “excellence is cool” environment where most students want to achieve and help each other to do well. The Culpos say this quality, in an all-female environment, made it very easy for Olivia to fit in comfortably with the extraordinary group of 50 other women in the weeks-long pageant competition. She was not intimidated.
Olivia’s unflinching determination comes from what her dad cites as her “tortoise and the hare” approach to life. Peter was emphatic, “She was often slow and stubborn...but she gets it. She puts in the work. She’s a hard worker, very disciplined. She visualizes a goal and goes after it.” This goes hand-in-hand with one of the quotes attributed to Catherine McAuley, the founder of the Sisters of Mercy who operate Bay View: “The simplest and most practical lesson I know is to resolve to be good today, but better tomorrow...taking short, careful steps, not great strides.”
Bay View’s legendary reputation for developing spirited, compassionate, independent young women may have been the key reason she won the pageant. The audience in the internationally televised event applauded when she answered the most controversial question posed: "Would you feel it would be fair that a transgender woman wins the Miss USA title over a natural-born woman?" She said yes. Her smooth, spontaneous response was a thoughtful blend of compassion and a recognition of America’s legendary belief in personal freedoms. While it might not be the answer everyone would have chosen, it was her view and she presented it confidently.
Olivia’s unconventional odyssey in capturing the Miss USA crown is filled with poignant ironies and contradictions.
- As a pre-teen, she was teased about her weight. Her parents knew she was chubby but didn’t make it a big issue. One day she decided it was time to watch her diet, measure food and count calories. She wanted to be healthy and also end some of the unwelcome teasing she was getting. Discipline and exercise took off the pounds. Later, her doctor would tell the Culpos that Olivia’s dedicated efforts would save her from becoming a 5’7” young adult with a 185 pound weight problem. Olivia had no way of knowing her discipline then would lead to a $300,000 crown and a Miss USA title.
- Her family was torn by her whim of entering a beauty pageant a year ago. Her mom and dad, and a sibling or two, argued against it. They figured it would be a waste of time with little chance of winning. Eventually, they all fully supported her.
- A few of her friends were constantly critical about the pageant. She had to separate herself from them because of the time commitment and to help her stay positive in her efforts to compete successfully.
- Unlike most contestants, this was the only pageant she had ever entered. In the pageant world, that’s unheard of.
- She won the state pageant with an online, rented $25 gown that was too short and had a tear in the back.
- The Miss USA Pageant doesn’t have a talent competition. Yet, Olivia would have been a stunning competitor given her formidable experience as a symphony cellist.
- At 5’7” tall, Olivia was the shortest of all 51 Miss USA contestants
During her reign, Olivia will be a spokesperson for breast and ovarian cancer treatment and research. She will also compete in the Miss Universe Pageant in December. The Bay View community wishes her well.
Dave Layman is a former evening news anchor on Channels 10 and 6. He is President of Layman Communications, a corporate communications firm in North Kingstown. He and his wife Karin have two daughters, a senior and a junior, attending Bay View.