Narine Ishhanov feels like she still has something to prove.
Less than 14 years after she arrived in America knowing just four words of English, the immigrant from Turkmenistan was crowned Miss Utah-USA.
On Monday, she’ll compete for the title of Miss USA and the chance to represent her adopted country in the Miss Universe pageant.
“I feel very blessed and grateful for this experience,” Ishhanov said. “It almost feels unreal, I’ll be honest with you. It’s, like, ‘Oh, wow! I’m competing for Miss USA!‘”
The 24-year-old just graduated from the University of Utah, and she’s applying to dental schools. She owns and operates her own trucking company. She’s an ambassador for Utah’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Action Center.
So a little thing like appearing on national television (Monday, 7 p.m., Fox/Ch. 13) doesn’t faze her at all. Ishhanov said she’s not nervous going into the Miss USA competition, “which kind of scares me, in a way,” she said with a laugh. “I feel like I should be nervous, but I’m more excited.
“I want to show who I am to the world,” she said. “And I want to show people that you can be anyone and come from anywhere to represent the state that you love. I want to just explain and show everybody how accepting my state was with me and my family, and how caring and supporting everybody here was.”
Driven to succeed
Ishhanov is clearly driven, and she believes “it comes mostly from my parents. Just watching them work so hard — never taking a break or going on vacations. They don’t even know what a vacation is.”
Ishhanov, whose background is Armenian, was born in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan — formerly part of the Soviet Union. Her father came to the United States in 2000; she, her mother and one of her brothers followed in 2004, when she was 11.
Her mother works in housekeeping at the U. Medical Center; her father is an independent contractor with FedEx.
“Watching them sacrifice so much for me and my brothers has taught me to be really driven. And a little bit harder on myself, maybe,” Ishhanov said. “I am driven, and I never want to complain about how hard life is because of watching them work so hard for us.”
Not surprisingly, a good many people are surprised when they learn that Ishhanov is representing Utah at the Miss USA pageant. She is not what they expected.
“It’s interesting to me that people out of state, they always have this certain image of what Miss Utah would be like,” she said. “And they see completely something else. They’re really shocked, for sure.”
Because she’s not blond. She’s not LDS. And she has a bit of an accent.
“The first thing I’m asked, definitely, is ‘Are you Mormon?’ And when I tell them, no, I’m not, they’re really shocked,” she said.
(Ishhanov is Eastern Orthodox.)
“And then the next question I’m asked is if my family is polygamists,” Ishhanov said with a laugh. “Of course that question has to come up. I’m like, ‘No — but I do live in Bluffdale.’”
Ishhanov doesn’t shy away from the idea that she’s representing immigrants at the Miss USA pageant — but she makes it clear she’s representing legal immigrants.
“My view on this is we live in America, and I want to represent everyone who wants to follow the law and all the rules in becoming citizens of the United States — just like my parents,” she said. “That’s how I feel about it.”
Ishhanov obtained U.S. citizenship because she was under 18 when her parents were naturalized — just barely.
“I became a citizen of the United States three days before my 18th birthday,” she said. “It’s a long, scary process, and if I would’ve turned 18 before I became a citizen, then I would’ve had to go through that process myself. I got really lucky there.”
No empty-headed model
In addition to everything else, Ishhanov works the occasional modeling job. And, several times, the photographers “did not believe me that I’m studying chemistry and psychology and I want to go to dental school. They’re like, ‘We would never think you’re that type of person.’”
Because, apparently, she’s attractive.
“That made me feel almost aggressive, in a way, to be even more driven,” Ishhanov said, adding it “makes me want even more to become the next Miss USA” and, eventually, a dentist working with Doctors Without Borders.
“We’ll see how the years go by. I need to get into dental school first,” she said with a laugh.
Ishhanov said her parents couldn’t be more excited about her winning the Miss Utah-USA pageant and competing to be Miss USA.
“They would’ve never thought, 10 years ago, their daughter would be competing for the title of Miss USA,” she said. “Coming from where we come from, where there’s absolutely no freedom for women, and now I’m going to do this is a huge deal.”
Ishhanov’s parents first raised the idea of immigrating to the U.S. when their only daughter was just a baby.
“My mother was sitting with my father watching TV and she just said, ‘There is no future here for our children. What are we going to do?’ And then my dad brought up the idea about coming to America,” Ishhanov said, adding that was a “very dangerous” idea in Turkmenistan at the time.
Her father came to the U.S., obtained a green card and began working here in 2000. It wasn’t until 2004 that Ishhanov, her mother and brother came here.
“After 9/11, it was extremely difficult to move or to even visit America,” she said. “We didn’t see my dad for four years before we finally came here. It was an extremely tough process.”
But one that was worth all the struggle.
“They decided to come here for us to have more opportunities, to have equality, to have education and to have an actual future,” Ishhanov said.
She was almost 11 at the time, “so I have memories of everything there. And, truly, I will never, ever take this country for granted because of where we come from.”
She recalled attending high school here in Utah and hearing students complain about “politics or the school lunches or the teachers. And I’m just thinking to myself, ‘At least you guys don’t have teachers slapping you on the hands with rulers,’ which still happens today. It happened to me.”
Ishhanov, her mother and brother moved into “a cute little house” in Sandy her father prepared for them, and she was overwhelmed by the welcome.
“I was just amazed by how welcoming the whole neighborhood was,” she said. “They visited us. They brought us gifts and food. It was such a warm feeling.
“Not every state is going to be so welcoming like Utah is. You don’t usually come across a neighbor who’s going to come to your house with fresh, warm cookies and welcome you to the neighborhood. We’re really lucky to live here.”
When Ishhanov arrived in Utah, she spoke four words of English — “hi,” “bye,” “boy” and “girl.” Which proved a challenge when she started school here.
“I didn’t understand anything,” she said. “I had to learn English the hard way, by just being in school.”
Well, that and by watching TV.
“You’re going to laugh. I watched a lot of Nickelodeon. I watched ‘SpongeBob,’” Ishhanov said.
She picked it up rather rapidly, however — English is her fifth spoken language — and surprised everyone after she’d been in school here for a year.
“I picked up reading really quick and spelling really quick. That was really easy for me,” Ishhanov said. “And, actually, in about a year, I ended up winning the spelling bee at my elementary school.”