UI alum Rebecca Chia reflects on advocacy for AAPI community as Miss Northern States

University of Iowa alum Rebecca Chia has developed a platform as Miss Northern States entitled ‘RealizASIANS,’ a platform aimed at uplifting Asian voices.


Ayrton Breckenridge

University of Iowa alum, Rebecca Chia, poses for a portrait on the Pentacrest on Sunday, April 25, 2021. Chia graduated with a degree in criminology and sociology, is the creator of the social initiative platform RealizASIANS and is the Princess of America Miss Northern States.

Alexandra Skores, Managing Editor

In the closet of University of Iowa alumna Rebecca Chia, there is a bright, blue trumpet dress, with a dazzling open back made with sheer edges. For many, a dress like that would be worn to a ball or formal event. To Chia, it’s a dress she has worn to win state and national pageant competitions, all while creating a platform to advocate for the Asian American/Pacific Islander community.

Twenty-two-year-old Chia is an Asian-American woman and recent UI graduate with degrees in sociology and criminology and has been involved in pageantry for 10 years. She currently facilitates a platform looking to uplift Asian voices through RealizASIANS: Ending Bias & Uplifting Culture, an opportunity she uses to speak out on Asian hate crimes and other significant forms of racism in the Asian community. She currently holds the crown of the Princess of America competition as Miss Northern States.

Standing up on stage, Chia hasn’t always been surrounded by women with identities like her own. At times, she is the only woman of color competing on stages in the Midwest. According to Insider, the first Asian-American woman competed in the 1948 Miss America pageant, Yun Tau Zane who represented Hawaii. Now, women like Chia are shattering glass ceilings for women of color to be more involved in pageants.

Originally from Queens, New York, Chia currently works three jobs to support herself and the costs of pageants, with minimal help from her parents. Her parents originally involved Chia in pageants, hoping to find her a new hobby. After 10 years, however, it’s clear the hobby stuck.

Pageantry can be upwards of thousands of dollars, including lodging, attire, hair and makeup, and coaching costs, she said. Chia tries to work long hours at her jobs in order to fund the long weekends she takes in her car driving to different areas to compete in the country.

Rebecca Chia’s Princess of America Miss Northern States sash and crown sit on the Old Capitol steps on Sunday, April 25, 2021. Chia is a University of Iowa alum with a degree in criminology and sociology and is the creator of the social initiative platform RealizASIANS. (Ayrton Breckenridge)

According to NPR, pageants pull a hefty price tag for a variety of reasons, with gowns alone costing $500 to $2,000. She has competed in International Junior Miss, International United Miss, America’s US Miss, and other local competitions in the Midwest. Chia won Miss Iowa for the Northern American Miss pageant in 2018.

“I work hard so I can afford this hobby of mine,” Chia said.

After her graduation from the UI in December 2020, Chia now works as a safety ambassador at the UI Hospitals and Clinics, as a server at Oaknoll restaurant, and a cashier at the Hoja restaurant, nearly 52 hours a week, for seven days a week.

Working hard to have the glitz and glam, Chia funds most of her pageants on her own in hopes of furthering her platform, RealizASIANS, where she advocates through in-person and virtual events to showcase Asian culture and uplift Asian voices.

Growing up Asian-American

Chia was surrounded by people with identities like her own when she was younger in New York, until she moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 2005. She remembers there being one other Asian girl in her first-grade class, and she graduated as one of six Asians in her class by high school. These experiences sat with Chia as she navigated to the UI for her college experience.

“When you grow up in a white populated area, you definitely experience imposter syndrome or perpetual foreigner syndrome,” Chia said.

Imposter syndrome, believing you are not competent or enough to be what others want you to be, is a common thread within individuals and their identity. Perpetual foreigner syndrome or assigning Asian Americans an identity from Asia or anywhere other than America, has also been a significant role in many Asian Americans’ lives, including Chia’s.

“It’s the people that ask me, ‘Do you speak Korean?’” Chia said. “I don’t. I am from here. It’s just incredibly frustrating.”

In addition to the imposter syndrome she has felt nearly all of her life, Chia has also seen the issue of the fetishization of Asian women become more relevant. For Chia, she realized on many occasions that people were thinking about her in inappropriate ways. She heard comments from men about her identity. These remarks hurt Chia, but also encouraged her to preserve.

“At the time, I didn’t know they were sexually harassing me,” Chia said. “I have since then put it behind me and made it a part of my story.”

Wanting to embrace more parts of her identity after her own experiences, Chia said she is fluent in English, but is conversational in Mandarin. She attended Chinese schooling in elementary school. Eventually, she stopped going, but learned about her culture in other opportunities.

The challenges she faced early on have sparked her desire to create a platform that looks to advocate for Asian voices — a platform her coaches are proud of.

Fine-tuning pageants and maintaining a voice

Excited for passionate talent, Chia’s coaches, Stella Kontos Hess and Thomason Bryan of S&T Pageant Consulting, met with her on Nov. 20, 2020 during a mock interview. Chia embodied the skillset of a phenomenal contestant, they said.

“Rebecca has a natural charm and now she is able to walk into a room and immediately captivate the audience with her poise and her speech,” Bryan said. “When she speaks, you listen.”

One of the most striking traits the coaches found in Chia was the force she brings to anything she puts her mind to.

University of Iowa alum, Rebecca Chia, poses for a portrait on the Pentacrest on Sunday, April 25, 2021. Chia graduated with a degree in criminology and sociology, is the creator of the social initiative platform RealizASIANS and is the Princess of America Miss Northern States. (Ayrton Breckenridge)

Despite the added frustrations in her own life as an Asian-American woman, Chia said seeing the murders of many Asian Americans in Atlanta on March 16 added on to her anger and ignited a flame within her to continue to raise awareness.

“The amount of Asian hate crimes has greatly risen in COVID,” Chia said. “… There are literally old people being killed and that easily could have been my grandparents. It’s so disturbing.”

According to a report from California State University, Anti-Asian hate crime in 16 of America’s largest cities increased 149 percent in 2020.

Chia has seen the hurt her community has faced in the last year and noted the hurt of Black individuals after the summer of Black Lives Matter protests, following the death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd. She believes there should be a bridge between communities of color.

“People who preach BLM, but don’t extend that to Asians are not being supportive,” Chia said. “All races are not supposed to be against each other. We are all a minority.”

Advocacy with a crown

Jihye “JJ” Park, graduate student in the UI department of sociology and criminology and former teaching assistant of Chia’s, said that she has been next to Chia throughout the process of applying to graduate schools. Park said she had has seen through Chia’s personal statement to schools the kind of person she is and how she remains resilient and strong in all of her endeavors, pageantry included.

Park also followed Chia’s work inside the classroom and ultimately recommended her for an undergraduate research position in the sociology and criminology department for her final semester at Iowa.

“She is a hard worker — and persistent,” Park said.

Park worked closely with Chia, learning about her passions for race inequality in crime and how that has shaped Chia into working toward a master’s in sociology. After Iowa, Chia will attend graduate school at Southern Illinois University in the fall and continue participating in pageants.

Despite her fears for her community, Chia is channeling her feelings into something positive — advocacy and awareness of the situations the Asian American and Pacific Islander community face. Chia will host a virtual event titled “Love Asians like you love our food” in May, where she will teach about traditional Asian dishes and spread awareness on the different resources there are to learn more about Asian culture.

Chia will continue to host events that advocate for racial justice for Asian Americans during her year of service as a pageant queen. She hopes to use her pageantry platform to continue to raise awareness to the hate in the world around her, she said.

“I just hope my voice gets out there for others to understand what is happening in the world,” Chia said.