Asya Branch always dreamed of becoming a beauty queen. She never imagined making history on two fronts, becoming the first black woman to be crowned Miss Mississippi crown as well as the first woman from her state to win the Miss USA pageant.
"Mississippi had never won Miss USA before and so going into the competition I was like, I can make history again," Branch told CBN News.
Her response to a question on gun control during last November's Miss USA competition clinched her win.
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Crowned during the pandemic, Branch, a University of Mississippi grad has since moved to New York to make the most of her unprecedented reign.
"Just making sure I'm keeping myself safe as well as those around me," she explained. "So, there is a lot of virtual opportunities for me. I think that's kind of the new normal as of right now."
For the 22-year-old beauty queen, making adjustments have been part of life. At age ten her father was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to ten years in prison.
"It was a very difficult time because my father was a very firm foundation in our family," said Branch. I remember that very same week I said, 'I have to write him a letter.' I sprayed it with my perfume so that he'd remember me. That was a very emotional experience for me writing this letter. I was crying."
The sixth of eight children, Branch and her family struggled to survive.
"We lost our home to foreclosure and we were struggling to make ends meet," she explained. "Didn't know if our lights and water would stay on, where our next meals were coming from."
She was taught about God early in life but said her father's imprisonment left her angry and filled with doubt.
"I was like, why would God do this? Why would he tear us apart? Why is he putting us through all of this?" Branch said.
Often bullied as a teen, Branch says struggled with her own self-worth. One day, feeling desperate and alone, she cried out to God for help.
"I realized I'm in this low place and nothing is going to get me out except for God. And so I put all my faith in him. And I relied on him once again and I feel like since then I've been able to thrive," explained Branch.
Holding onto scripture proved life-changing.
"Proverbs Chapter 3 verse 5, 'Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not to your own understanding,' and literally I would write that in all of my notebooks in school, I would doodle it and really let it soak in because at the time I had no idea what God's purpose was for me," Branch commented. "I didn't understand what was going on in my life. I feel like it applies to so many different things in life. Sometimes we don't see the bigger picture but if we trust in God, in the end, it'll all work."
Now a criminal justice advocate, Branch shares her message of redemption with other kids who have parents behind bars.
In 2018 she attended a roundtable with then-President Trump and other lawmakers to discuss the First Step Act, a measure that reforms federal prisons and sentencing laws.
"I should have never become Miss USA," she says. "But here I am. It doesn't matter where you come from. It doesn't matter your background. It doesn't matter what you've been through. You have the means possible to become whatever it is your heart desires. You can be the first in your family to take a good path and then set that example for those to come behind you."
Meanwhile, Asya will represent the United States at the upcoming Miss Universe 2021 pageant in May. As she prepares for the physical aspects of the competition, she hopes to let her inner beauty shine bright.
"Just having that peace in your heart and that peace of mind really can carry you far so aside from all of the stage preparation I've really just been focusing on me and what I want in life, what I plan to pursue and what my heart desires are and how I can present that to a panel of judges, how I can help them understand my heart and who I truly am and what I stand for," said Asya.