SEATTLE — A gas station outside Seattle's South Park neighborhood might be the last place you'd expect to meet a beauty queen, but here we are, trying on sunglasses with Shree Saini, the first Miss World America of Asian heritage.
"I think it’s a win for our entire country," Saini said. "It’s a win for an inclusive and loving America and I am honored not only to represent myself but those messages and our entire nation."
If she looks familiar you may have seen the billboards advertising the three Shree's truck stops between here and George. All are family-owned businesses named after Saini when she was eight years old.
"I feel really grateful when I visit," she said. "When my parents moved to the U.S., we didn't have anything. I remember my family could not even afford a TV, books, health care or even a car."
To see her dance you'd never guess Saini was born with a heart defect.
"I have a complete heart block," she said.
At 12, she was rushed into surgery to receive a pacemaker.
"And it was a very scary time," she said. "I didn't know why I was going through this while all of my peers were active. I was the one being singled out and taken out of school sports and dance and it was a very dark period."
Saini says her parents have always been her guiding light.
"They taught me to never lose sight of hope, to find a way to get back up," Saini said.
Her name, Shree, means "respect for all." Even as a child bullied in school, her parents saw something special, something her mom Ekta Saini describes as "authentic kindness."
"We can all be kind to people who are kind to us, but it takes a lot of character and a lot of forgiveness to be kind to people who are unkind to us," she said.
Saini's journey to the crown had one more painful detour.
"In college, I was in a near-fatal car accident," Saini said. "I am very lucky to have survived it but the car accident left me with burns all over my face. My face was blown up so much that I could not even see my ears. I could not even recognize myself in the mirror and I couldn't even cry because the tears would burn my wounds on my face."
To heal, Saini covered her face on the way to classes at the University of Washington. Saini has made a remarkable recovery and devotes herself to service, as a national ambassador for the American Heart Association and on behalf of more than a hundred nonprofits around the world.
Saini's heart may need some help, but as long as it's ticking she's converting her pain into purpose.
"So it's about using everything I've been through, all the struggles I've been through, to now be a light to others," she said.
Saini competes for the 2021 title of Miss World March 16 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The pageant was rescheduled from December because of the COVID-19 pandemic.