MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — On Saturday night, Miss Minnesota 2012 will compete for the title of Miss USA.

Nitaya Panemalaythong comes from a big family in Savage; she has eight brothers and sisters.

She made history in Minnesota, becoming the first Asian-American woman to win the crown. Another first: she had never been in a pageant before. She says being glamorous isn’t her style at all.

“I don’t look like this all the time,” she said. “I am usually in a ponytail, no makeup, and in a T-shirt and jeans, just to let you know. Ask my family if you don’t believe me.”

Her sister said the same thing. Panemalaythong talked to WCCO on Skype from Las Vegas, where she was in full prep and rehearsal mode for Saturday’s competition.

The 26-year-old’s motivation isn’t beauty or the crown, but graduating from college.

“We want her to get an education,” said her older sister Saykahm Chen.

That’s what her family came to America for: opportunity. The family fled Laos. Panemalaythong was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. Eventually they got sponsorship to come to the U.S.

Panemalaythong put off college and worked to help her brother buy the home their parents and younger siblings are now living in.

She was attending classes at Normandale when someone suggested she enter the Miss Minnesota pageant. She gave it a shot, and now has scholarship money for her education.

“I have always thought of myself as a survivor in life, and a thriver,” said Panemalaythong. “It’s just one of those things that no matter what comes my way, no matter what life throws at me, you just have to survive and you have to win.”

Panemalaythong took a semester off from college because of appearances and she continues to help support her family. She plans to transfer to the University of Minnesota Carlson School and study finance.


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