From model to model citizen, former Miss Universe OLIVIA CULPO is ready for her next step: the Hollywood spotlights.
From model to model citizen, former Miss Universe Olivia Culpo is ready for her next step: the Hollywood spotlight.
OLIVIA CULPO WALKS INTO THE ALL-WHITE HOTEL LOBBY dressed in head-to-toe black, from her bateau faux-fur sweater to her patent leather loafers. The perfection of the tableau is a bit dizzying—what with a bit of black in the hotel furniture, and a touch of white on her manicured fingertips—and for a moment it seems possible some Art Deco design fairy has waved her wand.
It’s not inconceivable. The former Miss Universe, now a fashion influencer and entertainment personality, may be sought out for her unscripted appearances—say, stepping in to perform with the Boston Pops during the city’s holiday festivities, when she was only supposed to read “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” But when it comes to her own life, very little happens off the cuff.
The ultimate beauty queen who began as Miss Rhode Island actually began as an accomplished cellist. From musician to model to beauty queen, Culpo has harnessed her discipline and poise every step of the way. The next step comes this spring, when the 24-year-old appears in her first substantial film role with the release of American Satan. (In 2014, she had a cameo in the Cameron Diaz flick The Other Woman.) In this upcoming film, Culpo plays the long-suffering girlfriend of a teen rocker, with all the typical young-rising-star angst on the table: dropping out of college, struggling to find gigs that match your ambition, floundering financially, making poor choices. None of which resembles her own path, despite the fact that before her current boyfriend, Patriots wide receiver Danny Amendola, she dated pop music wonderboy Nick Jonas, who few would have described as a struggling teen musician.
Culpo was born in Cranston, Rhode Island, the third of five children in a close-knit Italian family with a strong musical spine. Her mother, Susan Culpo, plays the viola in the Boston Symphony Orchestra; her father, Peter, was a professional trumpet player before he became a restaurateur. All five of the Culpo children (three girls and two boys) played music ambitiously—at camps, in competitions, anywhere and everywhere. It’s what Culpos did.
“IN A LARGE FAMILY YOU’RE ALWAYS SURROUNDED BY PEOPLE. IT’S HECTIC, SURE, BUT IT ADDS CHARACTER.”
“I started playing the cello in second grade, and I did the whole range—band camp, the Boston Youth Symphony, Rhode Island State Orchestra. Anything we could get invited to, we were invited to, all of us,” she says. “For some reason I had the most pressure to do the most camps and lessons and programs.”
The pressure might have taught her discipline, but by the time she reached college, she knew she wasn’t going to pursue music professionally. Her focus at BU was business, but her ambitions were invested in the intersection of style and celebrity. She began modeling for Maggie Inc. and immediately caught the attention of the people at the top; where most models need a few months’ development period, she was “different.”
“She was a natural in front of the camera from the start, and clients began responding to her right away,” says Robert Casey, Maggie
Inc. president. “She was a consummate pro, running around the city to castings and shoots in between classes, always approaching each modeling opportunity with the same enthusiasm and energy, while still maintaining a full class load and keeping her grades up. I always say that professionalism and personality are more important than looks in this business, and she had both in spades.”
She also had her eye on the next step, always. Culpo began studying the different ways of being in the entertainment industry, and tracking the paths of role models. “I started looking at people like Guiliana Rancic and Maria Menounos, and actresses like Halle Berry and Michelle Pfeiffer, studying the way they started their careers,” she says. The one thing their early days all had in common: the world of beauty pageants.
During her freshman year, in 2012, Culpo entered the Miss Rhode Island competition using a rented dress with a small hole in the back (“I couldn’t afford to buy a gown”). It was a strapless pink number, the simplest one on stage, but it made her feel beautiful. It also made her a winner. She moved on to the Miss USA competition, winning that as well (with a proper gown) and qualifying for the Miss Universe crown. Late that same year, she beat out 88 other contestants to become the first American to be named Miss Universe since 1997.
But having a beauty queen in the family was not exactly the crescendo Culpo’s parents had been aiming for. “My parents said that they were embarrassed I was going to do pageants. They said it was narcissistic,” she recalls. “So much of my life had been dedicated to the cello, and they couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t pursue that— or at least pursue the Miss America pageant, where you can showcase your talent in music.” But her research had shown her that of the two routes available to state pageant winners, the Miss America system led toward scholarships, whereas the Miss USA system led to what she wanted more: entertainment-industry contracts.
Becoming Miss Universe had several direct effects on Culpo’s non-pageant life. It instilled in her a love of travel, and it provided a goal in school beyond the typical study-and-party dynamic (“I was not the most social [in college],” says Culpo. “I made a decision to be different”). It also imbued her with an appreciation for charitable service; the Miss Universe crown came with a responsibility for advocacy work in HIV awareness. “It was so humbling to be able to touch the lives of people just by wearing this crown and sash, which are so silly, but you put this on and somehow the relationship they have with Miss Universe makes a difference for someone—it’s mind-blowing.” She is currently a brand ambassador for Pencils for Promise, which builds schools in underdeveloped communities in Guatemala, and she’s brought in pals Justin Bieber and Shawn Mendes to be ambassadors along with her.
After returning her crown the following year, Culpo settled into the business of steering the career options that were coming her way. In the past three years, she has been the face of clothing, handbags, and cosmetics for a spate of brands including L’Oreal and Kipling, and currently represents Rampage clothing and GHD hair products. What all this work satisfies, she says, is a love of style. “I love the way things go together, like a great table setting, or how an outfit goes together. Anything that elevates life, makes it more substantial.”
Her life is certainly elevated by high-profile appearances, like curating a Moët cocktail for the Golden Globe Awards, chatting about Toys for Tots on the Today show, or appearing on Beat Bobby Flay (“the Food Network has been my favorite ever since I was little”).
But the substance portion of the elevated life comes from things that bring Culpo back to her roots: the kitchen, comfort food, and family. All of which are in abundance in her new role as part-owner of a forthcoming North Kingstown restaurant, to be called Back 40, with her father and cousin.
“When I look at a meal or a plate of food, for me it’s the passion of how those flavors come together, the creation of it, seasonal fresh produce and dishes for different occasions—all those aspects of food are so valuable,” she says. “It’s like putting together a beautiful outfit.” But this outfit—a spot for casual American fare, similar to Peter Culpo’s Boston restaurant, Lulu’s Allston—is more like Sunday play clothes, reflecting the fun of family life. “In a large family you’re always surrounded by people,” says Culpo. “It’s hectic, sure, but it adds character.” She laughs, and her stunningly sculpted face goes impish. “As we were growing up, our house was the ‘fun house’ because there were no rules. There was always some kind of different drama and chaos. It was definitely fun, and still is.”
“It was so humbling to be able to touch the lives of others, how the relationship they have with Miss Universe makes a difference for someone,” says Rhode Island– native Olivia Culpo, the former Miss Universe and now a budding movie star, seen here...
Top ($595), embroidered skirt ($11,000), and belt (price on request), Altuzarra. Saks Fifth Avenue, The Shops at Prudential Center, 617-262-8500; saks.com Styling by Jason Bolden Hair by Justine Marjan at Something Artists using GHD and TRESemmé...