Brooklyn’s own Miss America Nia Franklin talks arts, diversity, pizza
This September, Brooklyn added a new accolade to its repertoire. Clinton Hill resident Nia Franklin was named 2019’s Miss America. Last Wednesday, before delivering the opening remarks at the annual Kaitz Dinner to close out their Diversity Week, Franklin sat down with the Brooklyn Eagle to talk about her goals for her Miss America reign and the importance of diversity in the competition — a Brooklyn attribute she said she hopes to see continue to influence the organization.
Brooklyn Eagle: To begin, enormous congratulations to you. Very exciting. So, I know about your background: you’re from North Carolina, you’re a classically trained musician — but I’d like to start with why you decide to compete with Miss America.
NF: I decided to compete for Miss America because I wanted to gain some scholarship money, actually. They’re the largest provider of scholarships to young women, and it seemed like a great way for me to utilize my resources and my talent and channel that into a program where that was appreciated.
At that point in my life, it had been about 5 and a half years that I’d been studying classic voice, I wanted to put that to use in the talent portion of the competition, as well as being someone who was involved in my community. That is extremely important to Miss America. I just wanted to kind of fuse those things together, and it seemed like a good fit me.
Eagle: You’re currently living in Brooklyn. Where in Brooklyn do you live?
NF: I’m living in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, although I’m not there much because I live out of two suitcases, pretty much!
Eagle: Where are your travels taking you lately?
NF: Lately I’ve been to [Washington] D.C., Atlanta, I’ve been to California — Orange County and L.A. — and New York. I’m still in New York a lot, but usually it’s for an event so I’m not home much. Maryland and Virginia. I’ll be in North Carolina next week, which is actually home-home for me. Atlantic City…
Eagle: All over! So, how has living in New York has changed you — if it has at all?
NF: It’s changed me in the sense that I found out very quickly that New York already has a lot of diversity for the most part. I came from North Carolina, where it can actually be a struggle to find diversity, and I think that — coupled with the fact that New York is so competitive — I learned very quickly that just because I am a black female composer or a person of color or even a woman, that doesn’t matter as much in New York. They just care about who’s talented and who has what it takes. Having that competitive edge is important, but it’s nice to live in a world — New York is its own little world — where you don’t even have to worry about diversity because it’s already a part of the society, the type of lifestyle that New Yorkers live.
Eagle: Would you say that Miss America does a good job of representing the kind of diversity you’re talking about?
NF: I think so! I think there’s always room for improvement, especially in a system that didn’t allow black women to compete at one point. So clearly, we have a ways to go, not just as an organization, but as a society. What I admire about this new [Miss America] administration and this new direction we’re taking now is that we are embracing not only diversity, but kind of just being a woman or being a person that does not have to fit a certain mold, because with that comes diversity.
Eagle: Absolutely. A great example of that, I think, is the lack of a swimsuit portion in this year’s competition. You’ve been quoted as saying that you really appreciated not having to wear a swimsuit.
NF: Yeah, and I still appreciate not having had to wear a swimsuit. But I just want to be clear that being fit is something that has always been important to me, and whether or not I’m wearing a swimsuit on the stage or not, that’s something I strive to do. No one is perfect, but I think it’s important to try to maintain a kind of balance in your life. My mom always made sure we ate our vegetables, and I also ran track and cross country in high school, so that active part of my lifestyle has always been important to me.
Eagle: How would you say the lack of a swimsuit portion alters what it means to be fit, if at all?
NF: I don’t think it changes what it means to be fit. I think what it does imply, though, is that you don’t have to look a certain way to compete. I do hope to still encourage contestants and young boys and girls that they’re keeping up with their health. At the end of the day, no matter what you look like in your clothes, your swimsuit, whatever, it’s really about what you are doing to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Eagle: That’s great. You’ve talked about diversity, but I’m wondering if there are any specifics that you’ve really loved about Brooklyn. If there are any characteristics that are inherent to the Borough that you can’t access otherwise.
NF: I think there’s a lot more freedom in Brooklyn. What I’ve noticed is in the area I live in, there are a lot of Jewish people and that culture is there. I think it’s important to have exposure to other cultures, so that’s one thing I’ve loved about Brooklyn — the way culture is celebrated there.
We have Afropunk, which is a huge music festival where you’re celebrating the music of African Americans and all that comes with that and just being proud of our heritage. You then have Brooklyn Academy of Music, which is so enriched in the community and promotes classic music and less mainstream music. I think it’s important to have a hub that supports music that’s not heard on the radio, somewhere where you can go as a composer and say “Hey, this is music that I like and that I want to hear.”
Eagle: I know you’re a huge advocate for the arts. I’m curious how that is manifesting right now in your life. Of course, you’re very busy, but do you have specific plans for the future?
NF: Yeah. My plan for advocating for the arts is to help as many children who are lacking arts in their schools to have that opportunity elsewhere, because there’s not much you can do with the budget. I mean, I can lobby on Capitol Hill and I do plan to do that, but as far as the budget, it is what it is and those superintendents and school administrators, they kind of have the final say when it comes to that.
But what I love about America and the freedom to do our own thing is that there are so many programs out there that will support these schools that don’t have arts in their schools, whether it’s by having a piano donated — I hope to get pianos donated during my year — or whether it’s AmeriCorps, which has programs under it like Arts Corps, who will go in and have artists teach dance or visual arts to children who are not getting that exposure in a classroom setting.
Eagle: Will you personally participate in these programs, or will you help fund them?
NF: I already am involved with these programs. I’ve been a part of Artists Corps since 2016. As well as Sing for Hope, which donates pianos all over the community of New York. They’re global and looking to expand, so I’m looking forward to expanding with them. I do want to do as much as I can in one year, but the more that I can actually inspire others to get involved those types of programs, that’s where we can really see a difference.
Eagle: And have you felt like you’ve been able to do that to a degree so far?
NF: So far, I haven’t had as much opportunity to do that as I would like, but I do look forward to doing it throughout my year. It’s only been a month, so I’m looking forward to the next 11!
Eagle: Absolutely. Looping back — you said you have plans to lobby on Capitol Hill, what specific will you lobby for?
NF: Arts education. It usually happens in March. I think the more numbers we have, the more support we have to this, because we can really show our politicians that this is important in our schools and that they should make sure that our schools and officials have the funding they need, so we’re not choosing between arts or sports or math. We shouldn’t have to choose. There should be enough money so that we can have all those things in our public schools.
Eagle: I completely agree. Do you feel like you had access to all of that in your own education growing up?
NF: I was fortunate enough to, I think. In elementary school and middle school there was always access to band class and chorus class. But I think we still need to make sure that our educators are doing their part and making sure that they are giving their best and putting their best foot forward. I think when there is a lack of funding, that can be lost in the mix.
That’s part of why I am so passionate about this as well. Even in my music classes, I wasn’t always the favorite or the best music student and I didn’t always get the attention that I feel like every child should have had. I’m extra passionate about making sure that not only are students having these classes that they deserve but also the educators that they deserve. That can make a world of difference.
Eagle: What’s one of the most surprising things that you’ve encountered this month so far on this journey?
NF: I would just say the amount of support I’ve gotten with my sisters who competed with me on stage, and how they want to be a part of my journey. I’m working on ways now to make that happen. And the support from the community as well. People are very excited for this platform that I have, and they want to make sure that I’m using the best that I can throughout the year. So yeah — I’ve just been very overwhelmed by love and support and that’s been wonderful so far.
Eagle: Has it been at all of a challenge having to balance what others might suggest you should be doing with your platform in relation to what you want to do with it?
NF: Not necessarily. I definitely feel like I have the final say in what I’m doing with my social impact initiative, and I think that makes sense, because this is something I’ve been working on for years, this is not just something I decided to do right before Miss America. I’ve always been an advocate for the arts, I’ve always been a musician, and passionate about what the arts mean to me on a personal level and what they can do for others, and I think people understand that and it’s been really nice to have freedom in deciding what my goals are for this year and what I’ll do with my platform.
Eagle: Final question. Favorite pizza in New York.
NF: Aw, that’s hard! There’s a place called Luigi’s in Clinton Hill, but there’s also a place called Little Italy on 72nd and Broadway that’s really good too. I might have to side with Little Italy, but I’m at Luigi’s more.
Eagle: I love Luigi’s. How does pizza in the city compare to pizza from back home in North Carolina?
NF: It doesn’t. The pizza here is amazing.
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