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Teen Pageant Winner Is as Asian-American as Apple Pie : Heritage: Mary Nguyen, the new Miss Teenage America, is the daughter of Vietnamese refugees. This 'girl next door' is a straight-A student and a cheerleader.

February 21, 1993|PHUONG LE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

She grew up in Southern California and considers herself to be a typical teen-ager. Her life is filled with cheerleading practices, shopping treks, late-night phone calls and weekend activities with friends.

Her parents are Vietnamese refugees who fled to the United States around the 1975 fall of Saigon. Homesick for their country, they gave her the Vietnamese name Hoai Huong, which means "look homeward."

Her American name is Mary Nguyen, and a week ago she beat out 10,000 other teen-age girls across the country for the title of Miss Teenage America 1993. A 16-year-old from Fullerton, she is the first Asian-American winner since 'TEEN Magazine began sponsoring the program in 1981.

The award brings a $15,000 college scholarship, a wardrobe and travel engagements across the country for Mary, but it also carries a deeper honor for both parents and daughter.

"We feel happy and proud," said Mary's mother, Mai Pham, a high school teacher in Los Angeles. "It's also an honor for the Vietnamese community."

For them, it is a reminder that their assimilation into U.S. culture is fairly complete. Their daughter is "the girl next door," as American as baseball and apple pie.

"I'm proud to be the first Asian-American" winner, said Nguyen, a junior at Sunny Hills High School. "America is based on a variety of the different cultures and customs. I represent a different ethnicity of the country, a part of the U.S. and a part of the minority. That's wonderful."

Nguyen said she identifies with teen-agers of all racial and cultural backgrounds. As Miss Teenage America, she hopes to reach out to all teen-agers and address problems such as peer pressure, drinking and drugs.

Nguyen said she has known too many people who are pressured into drinking and taking drugs to not be affected by it. She listened with shock at news that five youths at her high school were being charged with the murder of honor student Stuart Tay.

Experiences like that beckon her to the teen-agers' cause. Nguyen wants to study psychology in college, and eventually open a shelter for abused and abandoned children.

"I know I'll be a role model," Nguyen said. "Maybe if I can reach out to some, a few, I think I've done my job."

The problems of teen-agers cannot be solved in an hour as seen on television shows, Nguyen said. But she has faith in steady efforts.

Nguyen volunteers for such community groups as the Red Cross, Meals on Wheels and the Key Club and works as peer assistant leader at school. Next month, she will help build homes in Mexico with her youth group.

"She really wowed the judges with what she had to say," said Lori Moore, promotions manager for 'TEEN Magazine. "We want someone who has done something for their community and who's out there making it a better place for Americans."

In her spare time, she cheers, dances, leads weekly Bible studies, models for Seventeen Magazine and Nordstrom and maintains a 4.0 grade-point average in school. She will soon add national travel, fashion shoots and writing a monthly column for 'TEEN magazine to her schedule.

While beauty and poise were an aspect of the competition, Nguyen insists that the program focuses on other aspects, such as community service and grades. All applicants must have a 3.0 GPA.

"I really think it was my personality, my honesty and my directness" that helped her win, said Nguyen. "I was there to have fun and I was there to be me."

She gets her positive attitude from her mother.

"I want her to set the goals that she can achieve, go for it, not to give up and to be strong about it," Pham said. "We're so proud and happy."

Nguyen laughs when she hears her mother's praise. "I hope this doesn't get to their heads," she said.

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