Maryland's Nana Meriwether dishes on being too tall, oldest Miss USA

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"Things happen for a reason."

Potomac's Nana Meriwether, the reigning Miss USA, says that a lot. Especially when she talks about the road she followed to her title: two runner-up finishes at the Miss California pageant before being crowned Miss Maryland last year; another second-place finish, this time in June's Miss USA competition; then — finally — the Miss USA crown, but only after the woman who beat her, 20-year-old Olivia Culpo of Rhode Island, was named Miss Universe in December and had to give up the less-encompassing title.

Hers was an unusual route to the crown, Meriwether acknowledges, one that hadn't been seen since 1997, the last time a Miss USA ascended to the higher title. But it's all good, she insists. Had she won when she was younger — at 27, she's the oldest Miss USA ever — she wouldn't have appreciated it nearly as much, wouldn't have grabbed the opportunities it presents with as much gusto, wouldn't be among the select company of runners-up who later were handed the crown (and are thus ensured a place in beauty-pageant trivia forevermore).

Heck, Meriwether adds with a smile, she became Miss USA just in time to wear her crown to Super Bowl XLVII. For a Miss Maryland to show up as Miss USA at the Super Bowl where the Ravens win it all, clearly something more than mere happenstance was at play. That's something she reflects on a lot during evenings in the Manhattan apartment she'll be sharing with Culpo for the duration of her reign.

"Things happen for a reason," she repeats, with conviction. "I had a unique crowning, I was part of history. I live with Olivia now. She's one of my best friends. I'd take one day of this; I'd be happy. But I get about six months of Miss USA."

Gracious and tough

Of course, when talking about the reasons Nana Meriwether wears the Miss USA crown, it helps to start with the obvious ones. She's drop-dead gorgeous, lean and tall (at 6 feet, she's the tallest Miss USA ever), with a smile that would illuminate the dark side of the moon and the poise and bearing that make her stand out in a crowded room.

The Miss USA folks leave it up to the titleholders to "take care of their beauty," Meriwether says, noting it takes her about 90 minutes — 45 if she's rushed — to look as good as she does for an afternoon photo shoot at Baltimore's Star-Spangled Banner Flag House. Accompanied by her mom and dad, with whom she's just spent a rare weekend at home, Meriwether poses happily in front of the giant flag backdrop in the house courtyard, then takes pains to position herself atop a map of the U.S. set into the ground nearby.

Both Meriwethers set the bar high for their daughter. Her father, physician Wilhelm Delano Meriwether, made the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1971 and once ran the 100-yard dash in nine seconds flat. He was also the first African-American to attend Duke University's medical school. Her mother, NomvimbiMeriwether, emigrated to the U.S. from South Africa in the late 1970s to escape apartheid and gain an education; she and her husband were doing relief work in that country when Nana, their younger daughter and second of three children, was born in 1985.

The Meriwethers have returned to South Africa many times since. In 2007, mother and daughter established the Meriwether Foundation, which helps bring needed medical, water and sanitation services to four countries in southern Africa. While her duties as Miss USA include innumerable personal appearances and speeches — "There's a lot of traveling," she says, "it's more than a 9-to-5 job" — Nana Meriwether says she's most eager to use her newfound fame to further the work of her foundation and make people more aware of what's going on in Africa, both the good and the bad.

"All through my life, my parents have worked to help so many people overseas that are literally the poorest of the poor," says Meriwether, who is planning a May trip to South Africa, her first as a national pageant queen. "It's really affected me, so that in my adult life, I really want to change people's lives. It's something I will do, something my children will do."

Meriwether fields compliments deftly, with the grace of someone used to the attention. She's become comfortable in the spotlight over the years, first as a three-sport standout at the Sidwell Friends School in Bethesda (where Malia and Sasha Obama are enrolled), then playing volleyball at Duke and UCLA, where she twice earned All-American honors. Sports, she says, helped her overcome the shyness that comes with being a head taller than most of her high school friends.

Being so tall "was tough," Meriwether says with a laugh. "It was. No boys liked me. Girls didn't like me, either. But I've embraced it since. … I really didn't have many friends, but playing volleyball, you're forced to make friends with people. There's a team aspect and a team spirit to sports that I find very appealing."

So appealing, in fact, that it was the desire to continue in that competitive atmosphere that led Meriwether, after quitting volleyball following the 2008 Olympic trials, to try her hand at beauty pageants. She was still living in California, preparing to study medicine at the University of Southern California.

"I missed competing," she says, "so one of my friends was like, 'You should compete for Miss Malibu.' I did, and I won it, and I went on to Miss California USA. That was the first time I competed, and I got addicted to the platform it gives you to say something, to have a voice."

A long climb

Four stabs at the Miss California crown followed, but it wasn't until she returned home to Maryland that Meriwether won a state crown. That led her to last year's Miss USA competition in Las Vegas — and another runner-up finish.

"I came close at states so many times," Meriwether says. "But having those doors close and having to pick myself up. … Even when I got second place at Miss USA, the first thing that popped into my head was, 'I'm going to pick up and move on.' "

In her case, moving on at first meant moving to New York, where Meriwether and a college friend started a social media marketing and management business. She also started looking into medical schools.