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Newly Crowned Miss USA Has Family Roots in South Lebanon

The new Miss USA, Rima Fakih, has family roots in a Shi'ite town in south Lebanon. Despite some of the controversy in the wake of her selection, many Lebanese say they are happy with her win, that she has brought honor to Lebanon, and has offered a different image of Shi'ite Muslims often stereotyped as radicals.

This handout photo shows Rima Fakih, 24, of Dearborn, Michigan, as she reacts after being crowned Miss USA 2010, 16 May 2010
This handout photo shows Rima Fakih, 24, of Dearborn, Michigan, as she reacts after being crowned Miss USA 2010, 16 May 2010

Fakih, 24, is from the U.S. state of Michigan. The raven-haired beauty beat out fellow contestants in three categories - gown, swimsuit and interview - to take the title, which comes with a crown and $100,000 in scholarships and prizes, including the opportunity to complete a master's degree at a top American university. But Fakih, who studied economics and business management, has sparked some controversy because she was born in the Middle Eastern nation of Lebanon, where her family hails from a Shi'ite Muslim town in the south commonly associated with the Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah.

Her sister Rana Fakih was also living in the U.S., but recently moved back to Lebanon. She says the criticism of Rima is tough, and she remembers U.S. President Barack Obama enduring similar remarks, due to his Muslim heritage. She also remembers Mr. Obama's reply.

"I remember what our president said, 'there's no Arab-American, there's no Asian-American, there's the United States of America', and this is what we believe and this is what Rima believes," she said.

Lebanese on the streets of Beirut say they are proud of Fakih's accomplishment.

"Of course I'm proud of her, she's Lebanese," said Jallal Shazeek.

And that her family's history is not relevant.

"If she believes that she wants to apply to Miss USA and she wants to do that and that's one of her dreams, then do it, whatever the whole world says, as long as it's not killing or stealing," Zeina Karam said

While the U.S. labels Hezbollah a terror organization, in Lebanon they hold seats in parliament and in the country's cabinet and are a prominent part of society. In a Lebanese TV interview, Hezbollah member of Parliament Hassan Fadlallah stopped short of criticizing the pageant, which calls for contestants to wear a bikini on stage, saying only that the way Hezbollah judges women is different from the West.

Hani Nasser was born in Lebanon but moved to the U.S. at age 18. He says some conservative Muslims may not like the premise of the contest, but that most Lebanese are simply proud.

"If your speaking Shi'ite-wise, it's probably a shame for them, but as a Lebanese nation in general then definitely proud," he said. "I'm really proud to have grown up in Lebanon, and lived there for 18 years, suffered war and being poor and everything, definitely builds up character and gives me more of a drive to succeed."

Fakih's sister says Rima too has a drive to succeed, and that she will use her prize money to fulfill her dream of attending law school.