Cranston at the center of the ‘Universe’


It’s been just over a week since 20-year-old Olivia Culpo was crowned Miss Universe, the start of a yearlong stint as a model, spokesperson and global celebrity. Even relaxing in her family’s Cranston home Thursday, Culpo looks the part. Her hair pulled back into a ponytail, there is no evening gown, crown or sash to be seen, but she is as flawless in person as she is on television.

But to her family, she’s just “Livie.”

“We’re just along for the ride,” says her mom, Susan.

That ride has been surprisingly short. The Miss Rhode Island competition was Culpo’s first pageant, and before she knew it, she was competing for the Miss USA title in Las Vegas in June. Roughly six months later, she was back in Vegas to compete against 88 of the world’s most beautiful women.

With odds like that, Culpo tried not to think about the pageant in terms of winning or losing.

“One out of 89 girls is going to win; it’s improbable that I would win,” she said. “I never compared myself to anyone. For me, I knew I had worked as hard as I could.”

Among the contestants was Renae Ayris, Culpo’s roommate. Culpo says they were both competitive people, and “kept each other on our toes.” Overall, though, she said Ayris and all of the contestants were warm, strong and talented women.

“They have no need to be catty or mean. They were really sweet,” Culpo said.

Culpo has plenty of talent of her own. An accomplished cellist, she has played in the Boston Symphany Hall and Carnegie Hall, and visited the Boston Pops recently to read “Twas the Night Before Christmas” as Susan, who is also a musician, performed.

“That was a thrill for me,” Susan said. “That was my 15 minutes of fame.”

In addition to music, Culpo has continued to add to her résumé as a model. In pursuit of the crown, and future endeavors on camera, Culpo exercises regularly and eats healthy, but she says earning points with the judges is more about how you carry yourself.

“I figured out that with pageants, it’s not who’s the most beautiful or who has the best walk. It’s about your style – the whole package,” she said.

With two pageants under her belt, Culpo felt more at ease on stage and she hopes that showed.

“I was very comfortable in my own skin,” she said.

With an American location for the telecast, Culpo’s family turned out in force. Susan said there were moments when she just wanted to look away.

“I had this knot in my stomach,” she said.

She was especially nervous when it came to announcing the top 16. The contestants were chosen based on their performance during preliminaries. Culpo’s name was announced last.

“I think they do that just to age me,” Susan joked.

That portion of the competition was nerve-wracking for Culpo, too, who had already faced pushback from fans and pageant officials. Her gown, brought in from a Lebanese designer, was hardly a hit for the president of the Miss Universe pageant. Culpo was told by pageant officials and stylists that the dress made her look like “Mrs. Claus,” and that it would not photograph well. On blogs, pageant fans criticized the bold choice.

“A lot of people hated it,” she said.

Culpo was not to be deterred. She said she got goose bumps when she first saw it, and couldn’t stop thinking about it.

“Week after week, I kept dreaming about it,” she said. “I stuck to my gut.”

Culpo had to come to terms with the fact that the choice wasn’t popular, and if she lost, the dress could be a contributing factor. Last Wednesday, she stepped out in the cranberry colored gown, confident in her choice – a choice that would ultimately match the Miss Universe crown.

When she made it to the top five, Culpo was on cloud 9.

“I was having so much fun at that point, I didn’t care if I was going to win or not,” she said.

But she did win, and after a frenzy of media appearances, she is just glad to be home for the holidays.

“I just wanted to go home and relax and just be Olivia,” she said.

Culpo has caught up on her sleep in the past week, and will remain in Edgewood until New Year’s Day. She is looking forward to starting her new “job,” but says she will continue to visit her parents and four siblings as often as she can.

“I love Rhode Island. I feel so close to this state,” she said.

The entire past year has been a whirlwind for Culpo, who lived in New York City when she wasn’t jet setting around the country for events. As Miss USA, she served as a spokeswoman for breast and ovarian cancer awareness. She attended charity events from coast to coast.

“My frequent flyer miles have definitely gone up. I was donating a lot of my time to charity,” she said. “The most rewarding part was building a connection with people. It was great to meet so many people.”

Culpo liked meeting and working with young women in particular, a trait she picked up at her alma mater, St. Mary’s Academy-Bay View, which she says helped shape her as a person. As Miss Universe, Culpo will now serve as a spokeswoman for HIV/AIDS, but will have the opportunity to work on causes close to her heart as well. She hopes to work with teenagers in that capacity.

“There are so many girls around the world who need role models,” she said.

How that might influence her life after she passes her title on remains unclear. Culpo has taken time off from Boston University, where she had not yet declared a major but was pursuing her interests in acting, communications and potentially broadcasting. Culpo does not think she will return to college in the traditional sense, but she’s not making any final decisions just yet.

“I’m just taking it one step at a time,” she said. “I’m still taking this all in.”


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