With thicker skin and a full agenda, Miss America Kira Kazantsev is
ready to move forward
By Lou Fancher
It's not surprising that Kira Kazantsev is Miss America 2015. Her natural grit shouts bona fide American spunk, and her red plastic cup percussion performance in the talent competition was attention-grabbing.
So how she has handled the coveted crown since winning on Sept. 14 and her ambitious plans for her 12-month reign shouldn't come as a surprise.
Aside from natural good looks and academic drive, determination runs in her family history. Her Russian immigrant father, George Kazantsev, read English but didn't speak it when he first applied for a U.S. visa to take a surgical research position at Loyola University in Chicago (He is now a surgeon for Kaiser Permanente in Oakland). Her mother, Julia Kazantsev, is a Sotheby's International real estate broker whose work ethic is a big reason the family has lived in affluent Walnut Creek since the reigning Miss America was 12. Her 15-year-old brother, Boris, is a quiet, high-achieving soccer player attending Las Lomas High School.
Kazantsev speaks three languages -- English, Spanish and Russian --and the 23-year-old pageant winner boasts a triple major in political science, global studies and geography from Hofstra University in New York. (She competed last year as Miss New York.) She is most likely headed to law school after her year as Miss America concludes.
Kazantsev, who attended Walnut Creek Intermediate School and Las Lomas High, graduating in 2009, said during a recent interview that adjusting socially when she
first came to Walnut Creek was difficult.
"It's a small town, and most kids had gone to kindergarten together," she said. "I found it hard to break into the social groups."
Kazantsev credits Las Lomas English teacher Lori Gieleghem (and her own parents) with encouraging her to think for herself, be strong and not compromise her beliefs while pursuing excellence.
"The American dream is changing and isn't as attainable as it once was, but I'm a product of that dream. It's up to me to continue that legacy through hard work," she said.
If becoming Miss America was hard, being Miss America was -- at least initially -- harder. She had to deal almost immediately with reports that she had participated in hazing pledges as a member of Alpha Phi sorority. It set off a vitriolic stream of rumors and commentary on social media.
Kazantsev responded by admitting the error, apologizing vowing to help eradicate the practice.
"You hear the word 'hazing,' and you think of awful things. In our case, there was no physical anything; it was standing in a line," she said. "It still wasn't right, I know that. I had it done to me, and I believed that was just college. It was my own ignorance."
Her skin now "thick," she's more aware she can be "ripped apart by social media," and said she's using the experience to let college freshmen know it's OK to say "no" to hazing.
Kazantsev will move on with her primary responsibilities as Miss America, serving as good will ambassador for Children's Miracle Network Hospitals and presenting her "Love Shouldn't Hurt: Protecting Women Against Domestic Violence" platform. Her other priorities -- encouraging women to enter science, technology, engineering and math fields, becoming small-business owners or entering politics -- are ambitious.
"I want to be at the helm of the new women's movement," she said. "Being Miss America isn't traditionally seen as being a part of that. We're becoming women who are incredibly motivated to raise money, be powerful -- yes, even in the swimsuit competition."
Pushed to elaborate, Kazantsev was straightforward. "I worked really hard for my body in a really healthy way. I don't see anything wrong with my commitment to a lifestyle and fitness."
Her lifestyle this year includes near-daily appearances, accompanied by one of two "handlers." Between hospital visits, participating in political forums like the Clinton Global Initiative's annual meeting she recently attended ("Hillary Clinton told me law school would teach me wonderful ways of thinking, so I should go even if I didn't want to be a lawyer," she said) and interacting with celebrities and foreign dignitaries, Kazantsev will speak out about the matter most urgent to her.
"Domestic violence doesn't discriminate. Just because we love our beautiful Walnut Creek doesn't mean it doesn't happen here and we should keep ourselves silent," she said."I could have picked an easier, less invasive topic as my central focus, but I felt my greater platform meant I had to address this. I make sure people know they can access women's shelters; I let people who are not abused know they can be up-standers, not bystanders."