Growing up and watching beautiful women compete for a sash and tiara on TV, “I thought I was a bit too awkward for pageants,” Zuri Hall recalls. Clearly not, because the Access Hollywood personality and American Ninja Warrior sideline reporter is now in her second year hosting Miss USA.
During the broadcast from Reno, she’ll be working with sideline hosts Julissa Bermudez and Micah Jesse. The event will see women from all 50 states and the District of Columbia compete in a series of categories: private interview, swimsuit, evening gown, and onstage question.
Helping decide who takes the crown and qualifies for Miss Universe is a judging panel made up of fashion designer Aaron Potts, Tony-award winning producer and owner of NitroC Group Ashlee Clarke, Dogpound founder Kirk Myers, fashion designer and model Nicole Williams-English, Sports Illustrated social media editor-at-large Olivia Ponton, and South Korean table tennis champ and model Soo Yeon Lee. This year’s performance will be by pianist, composer, and producer Chloe Flower.
Ahead of the 71st pageant, we caught up with Hall.
Have you had a history with pageants growing up?
Zuri Hall: Just admiring from afar. I always watched. It was a fun opportunity to have the family gather and root for your favorites. I’m very proudly and loudly from Toledo, Ohio. I graduated from Ohio State University, so I was always excited to see Ohio take the crown.
How does the atmosphere compare to working on American Ninja Warrior or interviewing stars on the red carpet at the Emmys?
It is the best of both worlds. There is this air of competition, which I love being a part of and helping facilitate. What’s really interesting and similar with Miss USA and also American Ninja Warrior is even though they are both competitive in nature, there is this beautiful spirit of community and camaraderie. Sure, everyone wants to take the top spot, but genuinely backstage sitting on the sidelines for both of these shows, I’ve been really encouraged and blown away to witness just how much each competitor is rooting for their fellow competitors. Miss USA, I’m seeing women holding hands backstage and praying with each other, coaching each other on how to take the stage, or “Hey, your gown is doing something weird in the back.”
Evans Vestal Ward/NBC
There is a lot of diversity in the field. Pageant president and 2008 Miss USA Crystle Stewart exemplifies that. How is it for you to see that in the pageant world?
I certainly didn’t see it growing up, not nearly as much as I needed. My heart breaks a little bit for children of color or any sort of differences who were watching back in the day on television and movie screens. They weren’t seeing themselves reflected. We have the viral moment that is taking off right now where we see Halle Bailey as Ariel in The Little Mermaid. All of the little brown and Black girls of color are watching and can’t believe it. Even at a young age, these kids know that’s not usual. I hate that is the case, but I’m excited about the future where there won’t be another generation born into a place they don’t see themselves represented at the highest levels of achievements and success.
Crystle has really come in and transformed this pageant in a way that got me really excited to be a part of it. She has a beautiful vision of this pageant reimagined. Women empowerment is something I’ve always gotten behind with women of all backgrounds…. The representation is needed. From what I understand, I was the first Black woman outside of the pageant world to be hosting Miss USA. I’m excited to be a part of it in a small way. I’m excited to see the new heights Miss USA takes.
The incumbent Elle Smith, who is biracial, is finishing up her reign as well. What was it like getting to know her?
I believe she was the first biracial woman to take the crown in Kentucky, to represent on the national stage—history across the board. It’s indicative of where the pageant is heading. It’s a beautiful direction. She just has an undeniable light. Her smile is megawatts, and [she] has beautiful energy and a really bright personality. To see her take that crown and see that genuine emotion in the moment when she realized she won. I’m excited to see where she goes from here because her star is on the rise.
For those who have never seen the show before, what makes this pageant stand out for you? What can people look forward to?
More of upping the ante when it comes to energy. A fresh perspective. I think it was made clear last year that Miss USA is not coming to play when it shows what a pageant can be. I really love having the “girl talk” segment where we get to hear from these women in a slightly different way. If you ask one question, they have to listen very quickly, so the pressure is there. Last year, we were sitting around the table tossing questions. It felt more like a conversation, which was really fun. I hope we can expand on that this year. We are in Reno, Nevada, so there will be a memorial for Cheslie Kryst, who was so beautiful and amazing. That was the city she was crowned. We will celebrate her life and legacy. We’re definitely bringing it this year. I’m looking forward to fashion, which is fun too. I’m looking forward to getting to know this next generation of future leaders.
What do you think will be the keys to getting that crown?
All of the women are beautiful. So when you hear the concept of beauty, me speaking personally, we’re redefining. Not just in pageants but as a society. We’re redefining what beauty means. It’s unique to each individual. These women are so gorgeous. For me, what is really going to make someone stand out is what they have to say. What do you believe? What do you think about the world you are in? How do you hope to make a difference? How are you currently making a difference? What do you hope our world leaders are doing to make a difference? During the “girl talk” last year, those were the moments [where] we had the loudest shouts of approval. We’re getting to hear from these beautiful minds. I really think that is going to move the needle for whoever takes the crown. They have to bring their A-game when it comes to showing up and speaking out about who they are and how they plan to use their voice in the world.
Miss USA, Monday, Oct. 3, 8/7c, FYI and Hulu Live TV