Becoming the First Arab American Miss USA

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Rima Fakih Slaiby when she was crowned Miss USA on May 16, 2010.
Denise Truscello/WireImage

  • Rima Fakih Slaiby became the first Arab American to win Miss USA in 2010.
  • She was born in Lebanon in the midst of the civil war, and her family left for New York City when she was 7 years old.
  • Fakih Slaiby faced discrimination and said she was pressured to drop from the pageant.

This is an as-told-to essay based on a conversation with Rima Fakih Slaiby, who became the first Arab American Miss USA in 2010. She is also a philanthropist and former professional wrestler. The essay has been edited for length and clarity.

I was born in war-torn Lebanon in 1985. It was both beautiful in the sense that was all that I knew at the time, but it was also really rough. Most of my memories are of hiding in shelters, not knowing when the next meal would be, or if I would see my brother again.

I figure I must be very lucky: When I was a toddler in a high chair, a bomb came in through the window, rolled through my legs, but didn’t go off. I also have a scar on my leg from a shelling.

I was 7 years old when my dad said, “Let’s go to the embassy, I think I can get us out of here.”

We got on a plane to New York City soon after. On the plane, they gave me a little kid’s coloring book. I’d never gotten anything like that before, and I was like, “Wow, I love America.” And I wasn’t even there yet.

Landing in the JFK airport, seeing the McDonald’s there, plus family members who had playrooms and Power Rangers bedsheets — I was just in love with America. I went to school and there were sports programs and we got free uniforms.

I went from a country where they don’t care if they kill women and children in war to what felt like heaven, where I could play outside and have a good meal.

My family lived in a small one-bedroom apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens. Back then, living there was a little dangerous, but it was nothing compared to Lebanon.

Discrimination after 9/11

After 9/11, I went from going to school where no one knew what Lebanese was, to being harassed over who I was. I was a sophomore then, and a boy in the grade above messaged me online, “You can’t negotiate with the enemy.” 

I got into fights, mostly with boys, and became physically strong.

My dad and his brothers owned a Mediterranean restaurant in Manhattan, but, after 9/11, people threw bricks through the window and wrote things like “go back to your country.” 

We decided to move to Dearborn, Michigan, because we couldn’t tolerate the racism. Dearborn has one of the country’s largest Arab-American communities. I went from a place where I didn’t fit in after 9/11 to another place I didn’t fit in. I sounded Latin because I’d grown up in Queens, and I didn’t have the same opinions as others did because it was mostly Islamic culture.

So I concentrated mainly on working. I had three jobs, including as a social worker at AmeriCorps, and I eventually ended up going to the University of Michigan.

Fakih Slaiby has always been involved in philanthropy. Above, she attends the 2010 toy drive for The Children’s Aids Society after she was crowned Miss USA.
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

Becoming a beauty queen

I actually wanted to go to law school, but the economic crisis hit and there were no scholarships. At the time, I’d been modeling for brands like Baby Phat, waitressing at Chuck E. Cheese, and working at a hospital. I did anything and everything.

But my guidance counselor and my mom encouraged me to apply to beauty pageants. I figured I’d apply to Miss Lebanon, but they replied that because I was Muslim, I wouldn’t work. So I did the orientation for Miss Michigan.

Miss Oklahoma Morgan Elizabeth Woolard, Miss Michigan Rima Fakih and Miss Virginia Samantha Casey wait for the final result at the Miss USA 2010 pageant at Planet Hollywood Casino Resort on May 16, 2010 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Denise Truscello/WireImage

I was blown away because it was all about charity. When I heard the other girls’ questions about bikinis and dresses, I figured I had an actual shot because I had a history in charity. Sure, I couldn’t afford a dress, but charity, I could do.

I sold my car and got a dress from a friend. It looked like a quinceañera dress, but for me, it was how I walked in it. Two days before the pageant, strangers tried to get me to drop out, saying that I was a terrorist.

But I looked at them and said, “If you take me out of this pageant, this will be discrimination. I’m an American citizen, and I have every right to be here.”

By May, I was Miss USA.

Fakih Slaiby’s sister Rana looks at pictures of her sister winning the Miss USA pageant from the village of Srifa in southern Lebanon, May 18, 2010.
Mahmoud Zayat/AFP via Getty Images

Choosing my path

After I was crowned Miss USA, I was attacked a lot because I looked different and my name was different. But I got a call from then-President Obama, who said, “Hey, we’re cousins,” a few days later.

Those moments meant a lot to me. I thought that this is what Miss USA should look like, because America is built on immigration. And in the end, what’s more important, 100 people clapping for you, or the one person in the crowd that’s rolling their eyes? I concentrated on the good.

I switched my religion from Islam to Christianity soon after. I believe in life. Everyone has their own God, no matter what you label that God. I respected all religion, but wasn’t defined by it. My husband, who manages artists like The Weeknd and Bebe Rexha, is Christian, and when we got married we felt that it would be best to be one in the household.

In 2016, Fakih Slaiby married Wassim “Sal” Slaiby, who manages artists like The Weeknd and Doja Cat, pictured above at a party to celebrate Doja Cat’s album “Planet Her” in 2021.
Jerritt Clark/Getty Images for Doja Cat

I’ve continued my philanthropic work, like serving as the ambassador for the Children’s Cancer Center in Lebanon, and even had a stint in professional wrestling because I wanted to show the strong side of women. 

I choose to live by example. I’m a full-time mom and I also work with my husband, and I’m not afraid to speak my opinion and make a difference. My journey to becoming Miss USA was one way I discovered that voice.

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