Asya Branch made history when she became the first Black woman to be crowned Miss Mississippi USA in 2019, following in the footsteps of the Black women who came before her within the Miss Universe organization. But even as she was crowned as Miss USA 2020 by her predecessor Cheslie Kryst — one of five Black women to hold a title from the world’s top beauty pageants at the same time — Branch knew that her path would be different.
“Growing up, I was called an Oreo — black on the outside white on the inside,” Branch tells Yahoo Lifestyle, referring to her upbringing in the predominantly white town of Booneville, Miss. “It was hard to find my friend group that would accept me as me.”
The 22-year-old explains that she grew up struggling with her identity, as one of eight siblings striving to make her own path. Along the way, however, she found herself having to nurture others more than she could herself when her father became incarcerated.
“With my father’s incarceration we lost our main source of income, we were almost homeless,” she says. “I had to learn at a very young age, how to take care of my younger sisters, how to take care of myself, all while watching my friends live their fun, fabulous lives.”
But as she was crowned wearing a black and white gown to symbolize the very nickname she once felt defined by, Branch explains that she finally felt free. “That dress is like an Oreo and I was just like, ‘Wow, this is my moment of freedom and liberation from the hardships and the difficulties that I faced in my youth.’”
The adversity that she faced and overcame is what she now strives to educate others about with her new platform. While much of that work is centered around the criminal justice system, Branch acknowledges the work that Kim Kardashian West has done in bringing the issue to the forefront of pop culture.
“I think that [Kardashian West] speaking out about it was a major move in the right direction. I want to be able to make that impact as well,” Branch says. “My focus has always been on the lives of the inmates and their relationships with their families because so often children are abandoned by their parents when they are incarcerated.”
While the Mississippi native has already faced backlash for assumptions made about her political beliefs and her upbringing, she reminds those who look up to her not to “trade your authenticity for approval.”
“I’ve never wanted to please anyone and I’ve never wanted anyone’s approval,” she says. “You don’t have to change for anyone, and the people who are worth having in your life will love you as you are. That’s something that I’ve always made sure to do, is that I’m always living my life for me and that I’m able to continue being true to my values, being true to my morals and everything that makes me, me.”