Asya Branch, a University of Mississippi alumna and the first African American Miss Mississippi USA, was crowned Miss USA Monday night at this year’s Miss USA pageant. This is the first time Mississippi has won the title.
“I’m filled with so much joy and excitement,” Branch said. “I’m still running on adrenaline, and it truly is amazing. It’s such an honor to have been able to represent the state of Mississippi and to be this first Miss USA from the state of Mississippi.”
This year’s pageant aired live from Memphis and was previously postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. The first runner-up was Miss Idaho USA, Kim Layne.
Branch is from Michigan, and she moved to Mississippi in 2003. She has been competing in pageants since the first grade and has participated in pageants every year since. Branch was crowned the 2018 Miss Mississippi in the Miss America circuit.
Branch said that being the first African American to win Miss Mississippi and becoming the first Mississippian to win Miss USA are two very important accomplishments for her.
“I think it’s important that we have examples in the media for children that look up to. So many young people are on social media now, and that’s where they get their information. That is where they see everything all day,” Branch said. “They’re glued to their phones, and so it’s important that we have good representation and diversity for them to see and to have as examples and role models.”
Branch said managing the coronavirus pandemic was the most difficult aspect of her preparation for Miss USA. Instead of her usual pageant prep-work, she had to do home workouts alone everyday and meet with trainers and coaches virtually.
“It was a hard transition. You go from going everywhere to being at home, but I enjoyed it,” Branch said. “It gives you time to really reflect on yourself and realize your strengths, your weaknesses (and) your capabilities.”
For her platform, Branch promotes “I Am More,” which advocates for those who have been affected by incarceration. As a child of a formerly incarcerated person, Branch said that she realized that she was more than the hardships she faced and any difficulties that came her way, so “I am more” became her life motto.
One part of her platform is a program called Love Letters, where she donates stationary and stamps to inmates so they can write their loved ones and maintain a good connection with their families.
“I know that my letters from my dad are what kept me positive and strong throughout these hardships,” Branch said. “Just being able to write your children, being able to write your mother or whoever it is that’s at home, being able to keep that bond so that when (you) are released, you have a foundation to help you reintegrate into society.”
Branch said that through Love Letters, she’s been able to share her own story of growing up with an incarcerated parent.
“(My story) is something that they can truly relate to and see that this is possible. It doesn’t matter if I grew up with that money. It doesn’t matter if I don’t have what the kid down the street has. It doesn’t matter where I come from or my background, I can accomplish anything,” Branch said. “I just have to overcome these obstacles to strengthen me in order to achieve my goals.”
As Miss USA, Branch said her goals are to expand Love Letters nationwide and to continue spreading positivity.
After winning Miss USA, Branch faced controversy online because of her 2018 performance at a rally that President Donald Trump hosted. Branch sang the national anthem and participated in a roundtable event at the White House, and she received backlash for both.
Branch said that at the time, she was Miss Mississippi USA and was contractually obligated to attend all appearances that she was booked for, and these just happened to be appearances she was obligated to attend.
“I attend events and represent all people, not just one particular party, and so I, personally, don’t ever share my political beliefs,” Branch said. “Those are simply assumptions.”
While she doesn’t share her political views, Branch said she believes it is a true honor to represent the country when she sings the national anthem. She also said that she considered the roundtable discussion an opportunity for her to speak about prison reform.
“From that discussion, the First Step Act was passed, which helps rehabilitate inmates back into society,” Branch said. “I think that in order to make a difference for those that I’m so passionate about, I needed a seat at the table, and that was an opportunity for me.”
As Miss USA, Branch will move on to the Miss Universe pageant.