Memphis Commercial Appeal

Miss USA 2020 at Graceland crowns Miss Mississippi as winner

John Beifuss

The first Miss USA pageant held at Graceland crowned a winner from Elvis' home state: Miss Mississippi Asya (pronounced "Asia") Branch.

Branch, 22, was also the contestant whose hometown is closest to the host city: She hails from Booneville, Mississippi, about 114 miles southeast of Memphis — and about 30 miles north of Tupelo, Mississippi, where Elvis was born. (Miss Tennessee, Justice Enlow, lives near Nashville, while Miss Arkansas, Haley Pontius, is from Houston, Arkansas, which is west of Little Rock.)

The first Black winner of the Miss Mississippi USA competition, Branch also became the first woman from Mississippi to win Miss USA.

Socially distanced with an intentionally sparse crowd, the pageant was held Monday night at the Soundstage at Graceland, a concert and event venue located within the "Elvis Presley's Memphis" complex of exhibit spaces, restaurants and gift shops located across the street from the Presley mansion. Broadcast live on the FYI cable channel, the pageant concluded a week of Miss Universe Organization activities at Graceland, including Friday's preliminary competitions and Saturday night's Miss Teen USA pageant, won by Ki'ilani Arruda of Hawaii. 

MISS TEEN USA 2020:Hawaii's Ki'ilani Arruda crowned Miss Teen USA during pageant at Graceland

In a stark if elegant adaptation to the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, the contestants on stage during each pageant sometimes wore sparkly masks designed by Sherri Hill, the fashion designer who also created the events' evening gowns. The women did not wear masks when parading before the judges, but were masked when gathered for the parts of the shows that required all 51 competitors (representing the states and the District of Columbia).

When the ten finalists were announced, co-host Allie LaForce, a TNT network NBA reporter and former Miss Teen USA, added a new qualifier, describing them as "ten impressive women — six feet apart."

However, "It will take more than a global pandemic" to stop the women from "chasing their dream of becoming the next Miss USA," LaForce said.

As Memphis Tourism and Graceland officials had hoped, the Miss USA telecast provided almost nonstop promotion of the host city. Filmed montage segments depicted the women dancing and clowning at Graceland, and showcased the National Civil Rights Museum and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.

Because the contestants were unable to travel often outside Graceland due to coronavirus protocols, however, much of the Memphis footage starred Miss USA 2019, Cheslie Kryst of North Carolina, who was shown visiting Sun Studio, Beale Street, the "MEMPHIS" sign on Mud Island, the Peabody rooftop, the Arcade restaurant, the "I Am a Man" sign, and other signature locations.

As her reign came to an end Monday night, Kryst had held the title "longer than any other woman in history," she said, serving as Miss USA for 557 days. Miss Teen USA 2019, Kaliegh Garris of Connecticut, who also was in Memphis for the pageants, served a similarly long reign. Both women held their crowns for months longer than intended, after the coronavirus pandemic caused the 2020 pageants to be delayed from the spring until this week.

Kryst said she was particularly proud to have been one of the "five queens of color": When Kryst won her title in 2019, it meant that Miss Teen USA, Miss USA, Miss America, Miss World and Miss Universe were all women of color. 

If Memphis, in general, got a boost during the telecast, Elvis in particular was an almost nonstop theme. 

The women first appeared onstage to the sounds of a remixed version of Elvis' recording of "Blue Suede Shoes," and the 16 finalists walked the runway in their swimsuits to Presley's "Bossa Nova Baby."  The evening gown parade was accompanied by a cover of "Can't Help Falling in Love" performed by singer-songwriter Haley Reinhart, a former "American Idol" star. Near the end of the show, the top five finalists gave the judges what one of the show's hosts called "a final look" to the inspirational sound of Elvis' 1968 recording "If I Can Dream." 

Elvicentric considerations aside, the Soundstage proved itself an ideal venue for a pageant, awards show, variety special or other television "event." The glamorous broadcast went off without a hitch.

"The city of Memphis has crossed every T and they've dotted every I — and that's just in my name," joked co-host and television personality Akbar Gbaja-Biamila, whose hard-to-spell-and-pronounce moniker was one of the show's running jokes. 

The recent presidential election also was a source of humor, when LaForce claimed that excitement over the Miss USA pageant had "dominated the news cycle. You can't even turn on your TV without hearing about Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania..."

Distilling a season's worth of reality television competition into two hours, the Miss USA pageant began by introducing the 51 competitors, before whittling down the group to 16 finalists, then 10, then five, and then the winner.

Miss Mississippi Asya Branch was crowned Miss USA 2020 on Nov. 9, 2020, at Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee.
An advocate for criminal justice reform whose father served 10 years in prison, Branch impressed the judges —  the "selection committee" — with not only her poise and appearance but with her comments on political polarization (during the pageant's "question round") and gun safety (during the "final statement" segment). 

“As someone who grew up in a home with guns, I learned at an early age how to load, how to fire, and gun safety,” said Branch (the sixth of eight siblings). “I think we should require people to pass training and safety courses before they are allowed to purchase a gun and before receiving a permit."

Asked by a pageant judge to address the issue of the nation's polarization, Branch said: "We've lost trust in the systems that seem to keep our country running, from the media to business to our government. It's all about restoring that trust and coming together and working together, to heal... If we want to continue to be the greatest nation, we're going to have to set a better example." 

The other top five finalists also had tough topics and were asked to address voter participation, mental health reform, prison reform, and climate change. In addition to Branch, the finalists included:

Fourth runner-up Kelly Hutchinson, Miss Alabama;
Third runner-up Alexis Lete, Miss Indiana;
Second runner-up Mariah Jane Davis, Miss Oklahoma; and
First runner-up Kim Layne, Miss Idaho.
After the pageant, Branch commented: "I’ve dealt with racism, I’ve dealt with bullying, from having an incarcerated parent." She said that “staying true to who you are” was the secret to her success.

The pageant was not the first time Branch has addressed serious issues in a high-profile setting. In November 2018, her advocacy for the rights of the incarcerated led her to be invited to participate in a "White House Roundtable" meeting on prison reform in Gulfport, Mississippi, that was attended by Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and Mississippi's U.S. Senators, Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith. The meeting came a month prior to the passage of the federal First Step Act, which shortens mandatory prison sentences for some offenses and otherwise attempts to reduce mass incarceration.