When Arab-American beauty Rima Fakih was crowned Miss USA on Sunday, she was immediately held up as a symbol of American diversity.
Less than 24 hours later, the 24-year-old, Lebanon-born beauty queen found herself in a swirl of controversy.
A Detroit morning radio show had released photographs on its website showing Fakih performing on a stripper pole in front of an all-woman audience, some of whom were in bikinis.
In the photos, Fakih, who represented the state of Michigan in the pageant, was wearing a tight blue tank top, tiny red shorts and high heels.
The pictures set tongues wagging online. The radio show Mojo in the Morning said the photos were from its “Stripper 101″ contest held in 2007, in which Fakih had won first prize.
The photos prompted Miss USA organisers to launch an investigation, but in recent days Fakih has gone on TV talk shows, where she explained that the pictures were taken at a promotional event organised by the radio station.
She likened her moves to those taught in pole-dancing exercise classes and said she demonstrated them at the behest of a DJ friend working with the station.
Pageant organisers have indicated that Fakih is not in danger of losing her crown.
But the brouhaha over her racy pictures was mild compared to the backlash from right-wing bloggers who took issue with her ethnicity and cultural background – the very things which made her win in Las Vegas so historic.
Fakih was born in Srifa, a village in southern Lebanon, in an area largely controlled by Hizbollah, a Shi’ite Muslim militant group which the United States has blacklisted as a terrorist organisation.
She moved with her family to the US as a child and grew up in New York, where she attended Catholic school. In 2003, she moved to Michigan, residing in Dearborn, which is home to a large Arab-American community.
She told pageant organisers that her family celebrates both Muslim and Christian faiths.
Liberal commentators and bloggers feted her as a symbol of American diversity, adding that her victory would challenge Western stereotypes of Muslim women.
But conservative pundits viewed things differently. Some credited her win to political correctness rather than merit.
Daniel Pipes, a conservative commentator, wrote on his blog that the “surprising frequency of Muslims winning beauty pageants makes me suspect an odd form of affirmative action”.
Affirmative action in the US refers to policies to prevent discrimination based on race, colour, gender, religion or nationality.
Conservative political commentator and radio talk show host Debbie Schlussel went further, declaring on her blog: “Miss Hizbollah wins Miss USA”.
Noting Fakih’s family background, Schlussel said her relatives in Lebanon had ties to the Hizbollah and that her “bid for the pageant was financed by an Islamic terrorist”.
Responding to the criticism, a spokesman for the competition said it had been conducted fairly and that she was “saddened by the ignorance surrounding (Fakih’s) multicultural heritage”.
Despite the ruckus in her adopted homeland, back in southern Lebanon, Fakih’s relatives celebrated her win with pride.
“She is an honour to us, an honour to all of southern Lebanon,” her aunt Afifa Fakih Said said in Srifa.
“We are so often described as terrorists and killers, but we Shi’ites love life and beauty – and mainly the beauty of the soul, which is what is so special about Rima,” the 62-year-old said.