When asked if she secretly wore her crown around when left alone, Dao Than burst out laughing.
“No, that’s creepy,” said the 19-year-old winner of the fourth annual Miss Asian American Colorado (AACO) Leadership Program.
Than and 16 other beautiful and talented young ladies from eight different Asian American Pacific Islander ethnicities came together for a three-month long leadership program. The program ended with a finale show on June 26 at Colorado Heights University Theater where Than was named 2011 Miss Asian American Colorado.
It is said that the winner of this prestigious title must be empowered, intelligent and compassionate. The seven judges discovered that Than ultimately exemplified these qualities. However, she was not always so confident.
“I have always had a lot of problems with my self-confidence and self-esteem,” Than said. “My sister is absolutely gorgeous and my family always points that out.”
Participating in the program helped her learn to be more comfortable in her own skin. In heels the Vietnamese-American said she towers over most of the girls. Always self-conscious about her height, she could not indulge in her love of shoes, especially high heels.
“I finally learned to embrace my height,” Than said. “I am never going to change so I might as well love myself.”
Than grew up in Denver and attended Columbine High School. She went to Colorado School of Mines for a year for engineering, but will be attending Regis University in the fall to pursue a degree in biology or biochemistry. She hopes to someday pursue a career in medical research.
Miss AACO program participants were judged by involvement (attendance, attitude and participation), leadership skills and strengths, preliminary and on-stage interviews with judges, introduction to cultural attire and a talent performance, and their participation in group service projects. For example, the candidates participated in the 9Health Fair at University of Denver and helped sort medical supplies for Project CURE. Participation in these projects helped further Than’s interest in medical research.
Though she is a lover of science and math, Than is also a firm believer in art and its benefits. In fact, art was the main topic of her individual service project.
Every participant in the program was required to represent an individual service project. From raising awareness for eating disorders to initiating youth empowerment programs for the underprivileged, every candidate showcased her passion for service in an application essay that stated what service project she would organize if she were to win the Miss AACO title.
“I think is underappreciated in the Asian community,” Than said. “Art is so broad. People need to realize that and find what they are good at.”
Her main talents lie in 3-D art like ceramics and fashion. However, many are not aware that fashion and music are actually art forms, she said. To carry out her service project, Than wants to raise awareness in local schools about the benefits of art and encourage expression. She plans to visit art shows and museums, and eventually have a gala showcasing the talents of students.
Trang Luong, Finale Chair and photographer for this year’s Miss Asian American Colorado program, said she is excited to see what Than will do in her new leadership role. In the past, it has always been questionable how involved the girls will be after participating in the program. Luong hopes Than continue to unite all of the participants and get them involved in her service project.
“A lot of people say they are going to do something, but never do,” Luong said. “I think Dao really will.”
Luong first became involved in the program in 2008 as a contestant. She has now served as Finale Chair for the last two years and hopes to step it up to be a Co-Chair next year. Luong said Than stood out to her from the beginning.
“She was the first girl to turn in her application,” Luong said. “It is really about how you perform throughout the whole program, not just the finale.”
Luong described the new Miss AACO as always friendly and approachable. Than attended every event, stood out in a leadership role, really went “above and beyond” to bring together the other girls.
She said she is still surprised at the goals and accomplishments of the girls in the program considering their young ages.
“People are finally beginning to realize that it is not a beauty pageant but an opportunity to show yourself as an independent, strong woman,” Luong said.
Watching the finale show is even inspiring other Asian-American young ladies to step up and participate in future programs, she said, as other young women in the audience approached Luong about joining next year after feeling inspired by the program.
Than plans to return next year and participate in the committee as a Big Sister. She said one of the worst things about the end of the program is not seeing all of the girls on a regular basis. They spent a lot of time together at leadership workshops, volunteer events and bonding activities. They even went fishing and had a sleepover. Than’s favorite part—the food.
“That Miss AACO in itself. We all love to eat,” Than said.
Food may be what Than calls her “best friend,” but her true best friend, Whitnee Nguyen, was also a participant in the 2011 Miss AACO program. The pair met in high school and remained close after Nguyen entered the pre-med program at University of Denver and Than headed to Colorado School of Mines. Nguyen may have lost to Than, but she was voted “Miss Congeniality.”
Than calls Nguyen an inspiration.
“She’s the most genuinely nice person I know, and I wish I could be more like her,” Than said.
Nguyen and Than already plan to be Big Sisters together in next year’s program together.
“We’re going to start small and be Big Sisters,” Nguyen said. “And then maybe we’ll be Co-Chairs. And then we’re going to rule the world.”
Nguyen said she learned a lot about herself in Miss AACO. But it was Than that taught her that to be a leader, one must take care of themselves. She recalls an essay Than wrote in high school about self-worth.
“You can depend on other people, but it is really up to you to succeed,” Nguyen said. “I am really proud to all Dao my best friend, and I am really proud of her for everything she had done and will do. I hope all future Miss AACO girls will find their own confidence to pursue their dreams.”
Another one of Than’s inspirations is Lady Gaga. She calls herself one of the biggest Lady Gaga fans in Colorado; one of her favorite songs in “Born this way.”
“What makes the world diverse is that everyone is born different,” Than said. “I like how Lady Gaga isn’t afraid to be different.”
When she’s not eating her favorite foods (sushi, pho, burgers and steak), working as a receptionist at Floyd’s Barbershop, or sewing her own fashions, Than likes to dance. Her talent in the competition was traditional lion dancing with members of Colorado Asian Cultural Heritage Center (CACHC). Her uncle and role model , Phong Vo, teaches lion dancing at CACHC. She is fan of hip-hop and jazz dance; it one of her main sources of exercise. Than hates the gym.
“I hate running,” she said “The treadmill is my enemy.”
Now that she’s more confident, Than wants to make the most out of college. Although she has always enjoyed the familiar, she said now she is not afraid to branch out and get to know different groups of people.
In the long run, her experiences in Miss AACO have made Than love herself.
“You can’t learn to love someone else until you love yourself,” she said. “Love who you are and be proud of everything you do.”