BATON ROUGE, La. — Newly crowned Miss USA Nia Sanchez is a fourth-degree black belt in taekwondo and says women should be able to defend themselves as a way to battle the problem of campus rape.
The 24-year-old from Las Vegas said bringing awareness to the issue is very important.
Sanchez beat out 50 other contestants from all the states and the District of Columbia on Sunday night for the title of 63rd Miss USA. First runner-up was Miss North Dakota Audra Mari. Sanchez will go on to represent the U.S. at the Miss Universe competition later this year.
In a vibrant red floor-length fishtail gown, Miss Nevada answered judge Rumer Willis' question about the high rate of sexual assaults on college campuses. Willis, the 25-year-old daughter of actors Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, said 19 percent of U.S. undergraduate women are victims of sexual assault and asked Sanchez why she thinks the issue is being swept under the rug and what should be done about it.
Sanchez said women need to take it upon themselves to learn how to defend themselves. After being crowned, Sanchez told reporters she lived for a time in a women's shelter at a young age with her mother and at age 8 took up taekwondo to learn self-defense and build her confidence.
As an adult, she has volunteered at women's shelters, teaching residents how to defend themselves and teaching kids about "stranger danger."
"I relate to them on a personal level because I've been there myself," she said, adding that she plans to take her passion and knowledge for martial arts to the masses as Miss USA.
Sanchez also said she was "so proud to bring the title of Miss USA back to Nevada."
"I'm so excited," she said. "It's a dream come true."
Erin Brady, of South Glastonbury, Connecticut, the 2013 winner, gave up her crown to Sanchez after a three-hour telecast from the Baton Rouge Civic Center in Louisiana. Besides Mari, the next four runners-up, judged on interviews, evening gowns and swimsuits were: Miss Georgia Tiana Griggs, Miss Louisiana Brittany Guidry, Miss Florida Brittany Oldehoff and Miss Iowa Carlyn Bradarich. All the titles included USA after the state.
Bradarich got a second chance when the viewing audience gave her the most votes on Twitter in the pageant's first-ever "Save the Queen" option.
The subject of sexual assault was also on the mind of Miss Pennsylvania Valerie Gatto. She made headlines this week when she said she was the product of rape. During a taped segment that aired when her name was called, Gatto said her mother was 19 when she was attacked leaving work in Pittsburgh and became pregnant.
Gatto said she is living proof "that your circumstances do not define your life."
First runner-up Mari said she overcame being bullied in high school by competing in ice hockey. The Fargo, North Dakota, native wore a green floor-length evening gown and in her final interview talked about the importance of getting an education and going to college.
Contestants entered the stage on a glitzy float as Louisiana native singer-songwriter Marc Broussard sang the New Orleans hits "Iko Iko" and "Hey Pocky Way" to kick off the 2014 contest. The women introduced themselves while holding Mardi Gras masks in their hands as purple, green and gold confetti fell in the background.
The pageant also included musical acts by the country music duo Florida Georgia Line, rapper Nelly and Latin pop band Camila.
Celebrity judges walked a red carpet in evening gowns and tuxedos before the start of the show, posing for pictures and talking about the qualities they would be looking for in the beauty they crown the winner.
"It's very important that she has confidence," said Barbara Palacios, Miss Universe 1986 and a coach and judge for the new Telemundo reality show, "Miss Latina Universo." ''The right attitude and perseverance are also very important."
"It's all about the eyes," said Lance Bass of the pop singing boy group NSYNC. "I just want to see a girl that is just really having a good time up there."