One measure of the American Dream: After your parents dodge soldiers in the Laotian countryside, and your father builds a bamboo raft to escape across the Mekong River, and your family settles in a prosperous neighborhood in Savage, you are crowned Miss Minnesota USA, and the thing that makes you shake your head in wonder is butt glue.
"I never knew about butt glue! Did you know about butt glue?" asks Nitaya Panemalaythong, eyes wide. She discovered it during the swimwear part of the state pageant in November, where there's a downside of having your bikini bottom ride up your backside. That Panemalaythong had never heard of the glue -- officially known as It Stays! Body Adhesive -- speaks to her unfamiliarity with pageant culture.
The Miss Minnesota USA pageant is the only such contest that Panemalaythong ever entered. Not only that, but she's 26, the oldest a competitor can be. She's also the first Asian-American to be named Miss Minnesota USA.
"I did this for the scholarship money," she said, explaining that a state pageant winner is eligible for $45,000 at a Missouri university. In the meantime, she's had to put her education on hold at Normandale Community College, where she enrolled as a part-time student last fall after she'd gotten her parents and siblings settled and decided she could "finally focus on myself instead of worrying about everyone else."
But she's always been a worrier about her family.
The elementary translator
Panemalaythong was born in 1985 in a refugee camp in Thailand, where her parents and three older siblings landed after escaping from Laos. The family arrived here when she was 1, "so I feel that Minnesota is my home state, really." She spent much of her childhood in Mountain Lake, filling in the gaps familiar to many immigrant children, such as being the family translator during parent-teacher conferences.
Eventually, though, her family went on the move in search of jobs, first to California, then to North Carolina, where she graduated from high school.
Scarce finances put college on hold, and Panemalaythong returned here to live with a sister, while her parents, Kesone and Kaenchanh, moved to be near three sons in Anchorage, Alaska. She did some modeling, "but it didn't really take me anywhere," she said. "I was told I didn't really have the Midwestern look and would have to move to Los Angeles or New York. But I was only 20 and I couldn't see leaving my family."
She began working at Best Buy, then Wells Fargo to help support the family. When her mother developed health problems and her parents returned to Minnesota, Panemalaythong continued to postpone school and got a job at a reinsurance brokerage firm.
The wait was worth it, though. In her pageant bio, Panemalaythong described her proudest moment as "the day that my brother-in-law and I purchased a home for my family" in 2010. Today, she lives there with her parents, two younger sisters, a younger brother, an older sister and her husband, and two toddlers.
Panemalaythong laughingly defends her right to her own bedroom.
'Can you take the pressure?'
Panemalaythong is a striking young woman, whippet-thin with perfect posture. She seems a bit reserved at first, but you soon wonder if that demeanor isn't simply her trying to keep from breaking into laughter about life's twists and turns.
"One of the qualities I most appreciate about Nitaya is she's not trying to impress you," said Jennifer Isaac, who teaches public speaking at Normandale. In her night classes, Panemalaythong "didn't try to appear completely put together," Isaac said. "After working a long day at her job, she may not have eaten and sometimes I'd see her eating candy and Slim Jims. She didn't try to hide her habits and appear to be perfect."
No wonder the world of beauty pageants has proven eye-opening. For someone who wears little makeup and usually pulls her hair into a ponytail, Panemalaythong is learning about the transformative qualities of hair extensions and false eyelashes. Contestants do their own hair and makeup at Miss USA, so her skill set is expanding.
In early January, she spent Pageant Power Week with state winners from the Upper Midwest, meeting image consultants, attending a "Beauty Is Power" seminar, and rocking the Jumbotron at a Timberwolves game.
While there's a reason that the stereotype of the robotic beauty queen exists, Panemalaythong is learning that competing isn't as easy as she once thought. "I even did a paper on it for school, how people would come up to me and say, 'You're not one of those girls.' But if you look at a contestant walking across a stage in 6-inch heels and a swimsuit -- I mean, give her a little credit there," she said, laughing.
More seriously, she added, the interview segment is where crowns are achieved or lost -- probably because of the much-mocked beauty queen answers about saving puppies while working for world peace. "The interviews are really what the pageant is about, being able to speak in an organized way about anything," she said. "Can you take the pressure?"
Isaac helped Panemalaythong work on speaking slowly and with more volume, as well as developing her goal of helping immigrant families. "I really believe that Nitaya is the face and the voice of many first-generation college students," Isaac said.
Doors are opening
Victory is proving a somewhat mixed blessing. Panemalaythong is quick to say how privileged she is to represent Minnesota, and to be able to tell the story of her family, which is the story of so many immigrant families here.
Yet competing for Miss USA is spendier than she'd imagined, especially without a network of backers that more experienced competitors build over several years. So, part of her energy is devoted to finding sponsors who can help subsidize the cost of a gown, or days of wardrobe changes, or makeup or shoes. Though she's not used to giving such things much thought, she realized that "you don't want to give the judges any reason to eliminate you."
At 26, she's practically eligible for an AARP card in the pageant world, but Panemalaythong regards her advanced age as a plus, and that having a few more years of life experience helps her keep pageants in perspective.
"If this is your only goal and dream and you don't make it, where do you go from there?" she said. "But this is a great thing for me. Many doors are opening. I want to make the most out of everything."
The Lao Embassy in Washington, D.C., has contacted her about attending an event, "which was a little bit overwhelming." She'd like to use her beauty pulpit to make Minnesotans more aware of Lao culture. "With the older generations, there was a tension between the Lao community and the Hmong community," she said. "I think the newer generations are saying, 'We are people from Laos and we stand as one.'"
Her father, Kesone, beamed as she hammed it up around her siblings, posing for a visiting photographer. "It's good for her life, good for her future," he said, nodding. More than a quarter-century has passed since he built that bamboo raft and floated toward the future.