Actress and former Miss Universe Olivia Culpo, 24, was born and raised in Cranston, Rhode Island. Her father, Peter, is a co-owner of the Parish Cafe in the Back Bay and the South End. Trained as a cellist, Olivia attended Boston University, and in 2012 she became Miss Rhode Island USA, followed that same year by Miss USA and then Miss Universe. She now works as a TV presenter, covering the red carpet for E! at events like the Emmys and the Met Gala, and is pursuing an acting career in Hollywood.
Jonathan Soroff: Favorite place you visited as Miss Universe, and why?
Olivia Culpo: Good question. I really enjoyed India. I love the culture. I love the food. The people were really friendly, and I got to see the Taj Mahal.
What’s it like being such a huge star on Instagram? I think when you have so many eyeballs and so many people following you, you don’t tend to post as much personal stuff, because it doesn’t feel as personal. But I think it’s a way to be creative, a way to tell a story, and also a way for me to see what other people have going on, in beauty, fashion, art and travel. It’s like being the editor of your own magazine.
Best part of doing beauty pageants? Honestly, I don’t know that much about it, because I only did the three I entered: Miss Rhode Island USA, Miss USA and Miss Universe. I didn’t really grow up in the pageant world at all. That said, you get to meet women from all different parts of the world, so that was the best part for me.
Worst part? Probably how nerve-racking it is. I don’t have stage fright at all, but having to answer questions you haven’t prepared for on stage in front of all those people is tough.
Most uncomfortable? Being in high heels and a bikini is not comfortable. It’s uncomfortable and unnatural.
So why did you decide to enter? I was at BU, studying communications and acting, and I knew that I wanted to work on my stage presence. I looked at a lot of really successful actresses, like Halle Berry, Michelle Pfeiffer … a lot of really great actresses began in pageants. I was 18, and I won Miss Rhode Island USA, then Miss USA and then Miss Universe within a year and a half. It was a pretty major change from being in my dorm room at BU.
Favorite sandwich at the Parish Cafe? The Zuni Roll, hands down.
What do you consider your best feature? My pinky toe. Just kidding. Probably my big, fat, Italian eyebrows.
Your most bizarre fan encounter? I think it’s always bizarre when someone is so excited to meet you. I’m not sure you ever get used to that. But there was one person who came up to me with a Barbie doll that had my face. It was sweet, but kind of scary.
Anything that really surprised you about being Miss Universe? I was really shocked and honored, and I still really can’t get over how much it meant to so many people, all over the world. Something as silly as a crown and a sash that I was lucky enough to wear had this power to make people happy. People who were sick, or poor, it brought so much joy to their day. I honestly still don’t understand it, but I feel very lucky to have experienced it.
Most beautiful person you know? My mom. She’s got such a warmth and love for people that inspires me. She’s proof that it’s not so much how you look. It’s how you make people feel, and she makes everyone comfortable.
Top three beauty secrets? I have to narrow them down to three? [Laughs.] Number one is drink a lot of water. Number two is get a lot of sleep. And number three is be careful with caffeine and sugar and alcohol.
When you put the crown on Miss Venezuela, did you purposefully put it on so it would fall off? No! Of course not. She kept moving, and she was like a foot-and-a-half taller than me. I couldn’t reach. I really hope she doesn’t hold that against me.
Tips for taking a selfie? You have to be facing the light and not backlit. That’s the biggest thing. Lighting.
Why are people from Rhode Island so incredibly proud of their state? I’m so proud of it. I go back honestly multiple times a month, and I live in California. It’s because there’s a special simplicity and culture to Rhode Island. Everyone makes everyone feel comfortable. Everyone knows everyone or is related. Everybody comes together to cook, eat and have fun. It’s just a very loving, warm environment, and it’s really unique.
Do you still play the cello? Yes, I do. I actually just recently recorded something for a track with Snoop Dogg.
Favorite cello piece? The Elgar Cello Concerto. Watch the Jacqueline Du Pré YouTube video of her playing it. She’s just amazing.
Role model? I have so many different role models in so many different areas, because I have so many interests that are so diverse. In terms of acting, Sandra Bullock, because she’s so real and funny and you feel like you really know her. Then there are fashion designers I really look up to, like Rachel Zoe and Victoria Beckham, because they have families balanced with really successful careers. One more is Jessica Alba, because she’s an entrepreneur who parlayed an acting career into a huge company.
Strangest thing you’ve ever read about yourself in a tabloid? It’s all pretty strange, but I always think it’s funny when people say things like “She’s obviously had a boob job.” I’ve always been very petite and the idea that anyone could think I’ve got anything going on there is laughable. I’m certainly not busty.
Secret to being red-carpet ready? Have fun with it and don’t put too much pressure on yourself. I will let you in on one secret for the summer: body makeup! If you are in a skirt or shorts, mix foundation with body lotion to give your skin a nice glow.
Any red-carpet debacles? So much can go wrong. Fainting, nip slip, unintentional see-through shirt due to a bright camera flash … and I have lived through all of them.
Favorite red-carpet encounter? Sandra Bullock at the Oscars. I am such a fan of her and her movies!
Favorite for fashion: Met Ball, Emmys or Oscars? DUH, MET BALL! It is the mecca of all fashion events!
Last question: How long before you’re on the cover of Vanity Fair? I don’t know. What do you think?
Within the next six years. I love it! Now I’ve got a timeline!
Photo: Andrew Stiles; Wardrobe styling: Anita Patrickson / The Wall Group; Hair: Justine Marjan / Mane Addicts; Makeup: Lauren Andersen / The Wall Group; Wardrobe: Solace London dress