Miss USA Kara McCullough’s Take On Healthcare and Feminism

The 45-second timer began, and Miss D.C. Kara McCullough set out on a philosophical ride that would take her well past the occupying seconds of the Q&A portion of the Miss USA pageant. The question the co-host asked the contestant, who represented the nation’s capitol, was not just any question; it concerned a much-debated hot-button issue that has divided America for nearly a decade.

“Do you think affordable health care for all U.S. citizens is a right or a privilege?” co-host Julianne Hough asked.

Essentially, Hough asked McCullough to solve, in 45 seconds and on the spot, an issue that has perplexed the U.S. Congress and two presidential administrations since The Affordable Care Act was signed into law by President Barrack Obama on March 23, 2010.

Many people shrivel when asked a controversial question in even a small group, but McCullough answered the complex question in front of the world on an internationally-televised program.

Kara McCullough, who later that night was crowned the  66th Miss USA, did not hesitate. Standing center stage at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center on the Las Vegas Strip, she answered, “I’m definitely going to say it’s a privilege.”

“As a government employee, I am granted healthcare,” the chemist for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission continued, “and I see firsthand that for one to have healthcare you need to have jobs.”

U.S. politicians have yet to devise a health care plan that satisfies the nation as a whole. There is great division in the United States over the issue, and very few are rushing to the middle. Some believe that healthcare is a basic human right, while others believe it a privilege in a free market society where the individual chooses their own individual destiny. For the United States, the future of the Affordable Health Care Act is now in the hands of President Donald Trump, who wishes to repeal it or replace it.

McCullough finished her answer to a vocally supportive live audience, “So, therefore, we need to continue to cultivate this environment that we’re given; the opportunity to have healthcare as well as jobs, to all the American citizens worldwide.”

The 25-year-old D.C. resident’s answer settled heavily into the social-networking stratosphere, and became a headline the next day. Moreover, her sound bite on the controversial topic became a discussion and debate on television and radio talk shows across the nation. Overnight, she became the voice of the national debate over healthcare.

The radiochemist and competition queen Miss USA was more than prepared for the moment, did not back down, and proved to be more than “fodder” for partisan news programs when given more time to elaborate on her answer.

The Road to Miss USA for Kara McCullough

Kara McCullough was born on a military base in Naples, Italy, to veteran parents. Her mother Betty was a Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy, and her father, Artensel, was a member of the U.S. Marine Corp. Because of her parents’ obligations to the U.S. military, Kara’s family hopped around the world, making stops to bases in South Korea, Japan, and Hawaii before settling in Virginia Beach.

McCullough began competing in pageants while attending South Carolina State University, an historically black college with a history of civil activism. In 2012, the school in Orangeburg crowned her the 75th Miss South Carolina State University.

In 2013, McCullough earned a degree in chemistry with a concentration in radiochemistry. While studying at SCSU, she was a member of the American Association of Blacks in Engineering, the American Nuclear Society, the American Chemical Society, the Health Physics Society, and S.C. State’s Honors College.

Her career at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission began in 2013. The agency focuses on emergency preparedness with an eye on nuclear energy on the domestic front. McCullough reviews emergency plans for both operating and new nuclear facilities, and is a member of the commission’s incident response teams.

Miss USA Kara McCullough Take On Healthcare and Feminism“Initially, I kept it a secret [from my coworkers] that I ran for Miss D.C.,” she told Cosmopolitan magazine, “but someone shared it on Facebook, and then the word got out, and there’s been a real outpouring; everyone has been great.”

In addition to her work as a chemist, McCullough self-funds an outreach program for children called Science Exploration for Kids, which offers tutoring, symposiums, and science- and math-based projects for kids in 6th-11th grade.

“I go to schools to do science projects, tutoring, and presentations,” she told Refinery29, a women’s lifestyle publication. “I hope and pray these moments fuel them for their entire life.”

She was the only student in her college’s graduating class to earn a degree in the field of radiochemistry, a field McCullough states is often underrepresented in colleges. Careers in this field, however, are plentiful. “That’s why I always try to encourage students to find joy in science, because the opportunities are endless,” she continued.

Now, the ambitious and successful scientist and child mentor adds “Miss USA” to her resume. DeShauna Barber, the previous Miss D.C. and Miss USA passed the ceremonial crown to McCullough during the competition. Last year, Barber became the first active member of the U.S. military to win. While performing her duties as Miss USA, she continued to serve as a United States Army Reserve Captain.

“Deshauna is just such a phenomenal person and she really broke so many pageant stereotypes,” said McCullough to Cosmopolitan. “I’m just so thankful to have her as a sister, a friend, and a mentor; and her crowning me is by far one of the most honorable achievements that I’ve had.”

McCullough and Barber might seem to be outliers to those holding onto stereotypes about pageants being nothing more than an antiquated beauty contest, but McCullough disagrees.

“…the paradigm has changed,” she continued. “Look at this year’s Miss USA, every woman on that stage is accomplished.”

She reiterated that stance to Refinery29, saying, “It is no longer a ‘pageant’ but a ‘competition’. We are highlighting aspects of modern women.”

Kara McCullough’s Take On Healthcare and Feminism

The day after the pageant was a tumultuous media blitz for our newly crowned Miss USA, yet McCullough never cracked under the sudden pressure. Undaunted and with energy, she moved from interview to interview, representing her country, her crown and all of her achievements with a smile that never wavered.

“I own what I say, so I would say the same thing,” McCullough said to the Washington Post, “I have healthcare and I definitely don’t take it for granted. You would just hope and pray that everyone could be granted healthcare someday.”

She met with Ainsley Earhardt on the set of the Fox & Friends morning show, and said, “It’s definitely a good aspect to have affordable health care for people, and I am definitely not taking my health care for granted, and that’s why I said it’s a privilege.”

She told Cosmopolitan that she embraces the controversy.

“I think it is good because it shows that, for one, I’m starting a dialogue about important issues around our nation,” she said. “…it’s a privilege for me [to have healthcare], and I’m thankful for that. But I also do believe health insurance is a right for everyone.”

On Good Morning America, she continued, “I am privileged to have health care and I do believe it should be a right. I hope and pray moving forward that health care is a right for all, worldwide.”

In addition, she refined her thoughts on another controversial issue. During the competition, the co-host asked McCullough, “What do you consider feminism to be, and do you consider yourself a feminist?”

In her answer, she made it clear that she self-identifies as an “equalist” not a feminist.

“…women, we are just as equal to men when it comes to opportunity in the workplace,” she said to the audience and judges during the competition. “And, I say, firsthand, I have witnessed the impact that women have in leadership in the medical sciences as well as…in the office environment.”

The next day, she told the Washington Post that she doesn’t think there is anything wrong with feminism, but it means different things to different generations and different people, so she prefers to use the term “equalism” when describing herself and her situation.

“…the word [feminism] can carry different connotations…but I don’t want anyone to think that I am not an active supporter of women’s rights,” she told Cosmopolitan. “If anyone wants to challenge me on that, please call me.”

McCullough is now preparing for the next phase in her life. She has moved to New York City into an apartment supplied to her by the Miss USA association. She will also receive a yearlong salary, and all her ongoing expenses will be paid.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a moment of down time and I’m excited,” she said to Cosmopolitan. “If you’re not busy, what are you really getting done?”

As she prepares for the Miss Universe competition, representing USA, during a time of significant change and transition in America and around the world, McCullough continues to abide by a philosophy she once described in her first pageant during college.

“We all live and learn; therefore, nurture simplicity and humbleness.”

Robin Smith

Robin is a father, outdoor adventurer, and combat veteran, who served as a scout sniper with the 7th Infantry Division. He earned a bachelor's degree in communications from the University of Texas at Arlington, and began a career as a reporter and writer for various publications and corporations. He currently resides in Dallas.

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