Natasha Vivoda, Miss Ohio USA 2009 - Hands-On Beauty

Natasha Vivoda is the first one to tell you that she’s different than previous Miss Ohio winners. To begin, this was only Vivoda’s second pageant – ever. She was 4th runner up in 2008 when Monica Day took the crown, but named Miss Photogenic, something you can see was rightfully earned just by looking at the photos that grace the pages of this story.

But Vivoda’s differences go beyond just her pageant resume. From her background (she’s Slovenian and Croatian), to her career choice (she is studying to be a physical therapist), to her raspy-yet-distinctive voice (a result of surgery on her vocal cords), Vivoda is as unique as she is charming. Her passion and energy for own life, as well as the life of those she cares for at Hillside Rehabilitation Center in Warren, Ohio, is overwhelmingly humbling.

Her inspiration for completing her dream to be Miss USA is also not the typical one. She doesn’t look to the glamorous pageant queens of the past and is quick to stray from any notion or suggestion that she should alter her look to match the touched–up magazine photos of super models or movie stars. Instead, the 21-year-old Youngstown State Biology major looks for inspiration and guidance from her grandfather - “Papa John.” He was a gentleman through and through, and though he recently lost his battle with brain cancer, he’ll forever remain the king in this queen’s heart.

Let’s get the most-asked question out of the way first. What did you do when they said your name?

I cried, of course. My grandfather has been sick for four years. He had lung cancer and he suffered from a couple strokes and most recently had a brain tumor. He passed away two weeks ago. It was just really special for me because he was still here to see me fulfill my dream. He didn’t make it to Miss USA, but I know he will be watching. It was a really special moment.

What made you want to even compete last year and then do it again?

I didn’t grow up doing pageants when I was little, and I actually went to Slippery Rock University, I was a Biology major and Chemistry minor. I always watched Miss USA when I was little. I loved watching Miss Universe and seeing all the beautiful costumes, but I never really thought I could do it. I think I watched Miss USA that year and was like, “Why am I not doing something that I truly want in my heart?” I just decided one day that I was going to work hard and go for it. I just wanted the opportunity more than anything to show girls that you can be different.

What do you think is your most unusual trait?

When I was five years old, my parents found out that I had small polyps on my vocal cords that were restricting my airway. As a result from scar damage from laser surgery, my voice sounds raspy and soft. It was very difficult as a young child because I never understood why I was different. If you would have asked me five years ago what I would change about myself, I would have said my voice; however, I’ve come to embrace it. I may have one of the softest voices, but I want my voice to be heard. I know who I am, and I have a lot to say to inspire others. I have overcome many obstacles dealing with my voice that have made me a stronger and more confident young woman. Not a day goes by when I am not asked about my voice, but now I can proudly answer and say, “This is my voice, and I love it.”

How has this win changed your life so far?

I’m from Warren, Ohio, where I’m a behavioral technician at the Hillside Rehabilitation Hospital. I work with brain and neck injury patients. I just comfort them and spend time with them. Everyone has embraced me, the hospital, the community and the area. It’s such a positive thing to just listen to the stories of the patients I sit with. Sometimes they’ll say, “I can’t believe I’m sitting here with Miss Ohio.” They’re like 75 years old and some of them have no family, no one to talk to. I’m just touched sitting, listening and being with them. It’s special. I had so many wonderful opportunities and so many people who believed in me. It’s more than I could ask for.

So you’re studying to be a therapist?

I’m still pursuing my undergraduate, once I go back. I had to take this semester off for Miss USA. I’m going to be gone three weeks, so with biology and chemistry labs, I couldn’t really take off three weeks. I’ll be getting my undergraduate and graduate degree in biology and then my doctorate in physical therapy.

What inspired you to take that path?

I’m inspired by many things, actually. My voice and getting surgeries and my doctor. My doctor has taken care of me since I was five years old, so he knew that I wanted to do something in the medical field helping people, but I just didn’t know what. Now that I work at Hillside, it’s just amazing what touch can do for someone else. You have to have a lot of patience with people because it takes time to heal them. Many people don’t have hope; victims of car accidents and stroke the least so. It’s just really rewarding to see somebody getting better and stronger. I have a phobia of needles because of my surgeries, and physical therapy is one way that I can touch people without having to do the surgeries or be a doctor. I used to want to be a laryngologist and be a doctor.

What is the hardest thing about your chosen career?

It’s a process that takes time. You don’t walk overnight. Some are in wheelchairs. It makes you realize how walking is a gift. You don’t realize it until you don’t have it anymore. My Papa went from being very independent and an avid hunter to…enduring lung cancer and strokes, which affected his left side. Then he got to the point where he became so weak that he couldn’t do anything for himself. The biggest thing with my job is that you realize people want to feel important and want to feel like they matter. When you lose your independence and you depend on your family, it’s frustrating. It was sad for my family and I because he was our life for so long.

What are the tools of your trade?

Your tools are your hands. Your hands are healing. Your touch. Your patience. Your touch is the basic part of it. You don’t have to have anything else but just healing hands.

Does Papa John still inspire you today?

Miss USA is going to be a lot of fun. But mentally you have to really stay grounded and know who you are and what you stand for. No matter what happens, you are still coming back to where you came from and representing your state and that’s an honor in itself. But, when I feel weak, I think of him and I get my strength back. Our family is very close and we have gone through a lot together. Good memories and bad.

Who else inspires you?

My mother is the strongest, most genuine, loving, patient and intelligent woman I have ever known. Her compassion and heart for people is what defines her. My mother pushed me to believe in myself and to not be afraid to follow my dreams. She always says, “Natasha, it all comes from within, and nothing good comes easily.” My mother devotes her entire life to her family and those she loves. She is part of the sandwich generation and has had the responsibility of taking care of her father, working full-time, and raising my younger sister. Since my grandfather struggled with several grave illnesses for four years, she never once thought of putting him in a nursing home. Throughout his courageous fight, my mom was by his side every step of the way. My mother is a remarkable woman with limitless strength. She is the bond that solidifies our family. Her actions have taught my sister and me the true meaning of unconditional love and selflessness.

What do you want to do during your reign as Miss Ohio?

After Miss USA, I want to come back and I would really like to get involved with the American Brain Tumor Association because my grandfather was affected by a brain tumor, which we found out was small cell brain cancer. Cancer is a culprit of its own. He had lung cancer and it turned to brain cancer. It would be amazing to work with families who are going through that and share my story. You don’t realize it, but many families go through cancer battles, but you are only focused on your own family because that’s all you have. But my grandfather was so strong and fought for four years. I also want to travel with the American Cancer Society.

Anticipation about the Miss Ohio Pageant?

When I won, I thought I heard wrong. I heard the other girl’s name and thought they should have said my name (as the runner up).

Miss Ohio hasn’t won the Miss USA pageant since 1981– what have you been told or what are you personally bringing to the competition to stand out?

Go big or go home. That’s it. You have to believe that you are going to be on top and believe in yourself and who you are. It’s so easy to conform and be like everybody else, but you have to know that you are unique. I’ve been told you have to bring it. You have to feel like a Victoria’s Secret model working it on the stage. And just be a real girl and be relatable. Speak from your heart, and if they ask you a question during an interview, just be honest. There is not a right answer for anything. It’s just how you feel and what you’ve been through in your life that makes you different.

What do you consider your biggest virtue?

I would say my best quality is probably my integrity. My whole life I’ve stayed true to who I am. I know that sounds very cliché, but it’s true. I don’t want to be like everybody else; I just want to be me. Dealing with my voice when I was little has made me a stronger person, and I think I represent someone who has self-respect, morals and integrity. I’ve worked really hard for the things I have with school and push myself. I’m proud to represent Ohio.

What do you consider your biggest vice?

I’m on a major diet right now. I have like 12 pounds still to lose so I have to watch what I eat and I work my butt off at the gym. I love peanut butter and carbs, but I have to stay away from carbs, like bread and pasta.

As Miss Ohio, you are a role model for philanthropy and style. We’ve talked about the philanthropy, but what about your personal style?

I think I have my own unique look, but I’m still learning. [With my style,] I’m more classy and I like vibrant things. For a competition interview, I would wear something classy and elegant, but sexy at the same time.

In your schooling, what experience has touched you the most?

I was a member of the Slippery Rock University Alpha Theta Chapter, Lambda Sigma— a national honor society for college students. We helped with The Jared Box Project. The goal of the project was to lift the spirits of chronically ill children by providing them an outlet for their worries as they underwent chemotherapy or dialysis treatment. We filled shoeboxes with small gifts, toys, games and cards during the Christmas holiday and delivered them to children’s hospitals.

What is one thing that you have taken away from these competitions?

I chose to pursue a dream that seemed unattainable at times throughout my life; however, my determination and perseverance did not waiver. During my life, I have overcome many challenges dealing with my voice. However, as a confident young woman, I have embraced my voice, as it gives me a unique quality that has solidified my character. As Miss Ohio USA, I have the opportunity to inspire young women by showing them that you can embrace who you are. I could not be more proud to represent the great state of Ohio and the hard working families that reside here. I have been preparing for the leadership role of Miss Ohio USA with dreams of competing in Miss USA my entire life. My dream of becoming Miss USA is a testimony to the importance of being inspirational to others and believing in who you are.

When you are not studying or preparing for the Miss USA pageant, where might we find you?

Either on the treadmill at the gym, or working at the hospital spending time with all of our patients.

Who would play you in a TV movie?

Beyonce, because she has a butt and I have a butt and curves. I don’t know if you can say that or not. I’m representing the booty. She’s beautiful and she works it. She’s not thinking about her butt.

Best movie for a first date?

Anything funny! Just Friends.

Worst movie for a first date?

There are so many great movies, but I think for the first date, stick with something fun and playful to lighten the mood.

What song defines or reminds you of our first crush?

‘If You Leave’ by OMD, from Pretty in Pink, one of my favorites.

Your first love?

‘It Must Have Been Love’ by Roxette, from Pretty Woman, my ultimate favorite movie!

Your first heartbreak?

“Dare you to move” by Switchfoot.

Your pageant win?

“Glamorous” by Fergie - I love this song. Every time I walked on the treadmill at the gym, I would play this song and imagine myself on stage, hearing my name being called. Great motivational song!

Who was your first celebrity crush?

Chad Michael Murray.

What are three things you consider must-haves for pageant competitors?

Mascara, lip gloss and concealer.

What about Vaseline on the teeth?

I’ve honestly never tried Vaseline on the teeth, but maybe I will for Miss USA.

Natasha will compete for the Miss USA title on April 19th, 2009 at the Theatre for the Performing Arts in Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino in Las Vegas. It will air on NBC4.