• March 2013

From Miss DC to the Newseum: Sonya Gavankar on Having It All

By Hope Katz Gibbs
Founder, Publisher
Be Inkandescent magazine

Since all of the members of our Inkandescent team are journalists, we have been wanting to launch a Journalists column for ages. We jumped on the opportunity after meeting Sonya Gavankar, a TV personality who has been seen hosting programs on PBS, BGTV, and MHz Networks.

Her broadcasting career has spanned diverse programming from international food shows to hard news. And her career began on the other side of the camera—when in 1997 she was crowned Miss DC. She was 20, and a student at American University. Although she didn’t go on to win the Miss America crown, she finished her education and used her wit, smarts, and talent to land a position at DC’s prestigious Newseum, a 250,000- square-foot space filled with exhibits and interactive programming.

So we thought it appropriate to interview her in the broadcasting studio of the Newseum, where she makes the movies that showcase the exhibits of the country’s top news events covered by the press.

Being the journalists that we are, let’s get down to the questions.

Scroll down to read our Q&A.

Click here to listen to our interview on the Inkandescent Radio Network.

Be Inkandescent: First, we want to hear all about being Miss DC. What is the pageant world really like?

Sonya Gavankar: It seems like a totally underground world that people love watching on TV and they love making fun of, but they don’t really understand it. I say that with authority because I was one of those people. I watched every year with my mother.

We would watch all of the pageants on TV and make fun of all of the girls and cheer for our home state. I never thought that I would ever enter one, but I answered an ad in my college newspaper that said, “Young women looking for scholarship money, call this number.” I did, and it was the preliminary pageant to the Miss America Pageant.

I had always been a tomboy—I feel most comfortable in my pajamas—so I wasn’t one of these girls who had always dreamed of dressing up and wearing an evening gown and a swimsuit on national television. I did it as a joke because I thought it would be a really good story to tell one day to my grandchildren.

But when I met the other contestants, I immediately got very competitive and wanted to win. That is what I set out to do, and that is what I did. I went into it as a joke, but soon after I had to go to the Miss America Pageant where I was going to go up against the big time—you know, Miss Alabama, Miss Texas, girls who have been bred to do this. And here I am showing up with a short pixie haircut. I was behind the curve to say the least.

Be Inkandescent: Is the pageant world what we’d expect, a little, well, odd?

Sonya Gavankar: It is totally surreal, but it is also great. It is a little bit like cheerleading camp. There are a lot of really perky personalities, but you immediately find your tribe. Three of the girls from the contest were my bridesmaids in my wedding. You find your like kind.

We just had our 15-year anniversary, and nine of us got together to reminisce. It was like being backstage again with these girls. We don’t really have anything in common except that we are driven young women and have this shared experience at the age of 20, 22, 24, and it was like being back to old times. Except that we ate carbs—that was the only difference.

Be Inkandescent: What was your talent?

Sonya Gavankar: I was an opera singer. I did that for fun. I was always a singer and in music theater and was learning opera in college. When I was doing this competition and there was a talent portion, I thought, “Oh I’ll just sing the same song I was singing for my juries. Done.” It wasn’t that easy, and I lost big time.

Be Inkandescent: How did you parlay your title into a career as a journalist?

Sonya Gavankar: I was at American University here in Washington, DC, and I was a Broadcast Journalism major. I always wanted to be a journalist. I had watched the coverage of the first Gulf War with my parents and thought, “That is awesome, I totally want to be doing that.”

The joke is always that pageant girls go on to journalism careers, but in my case, the love of journalism came first.

Be Inkandescent: Tell us more about what you do here at the Newseum.

Sonya Gavankar: I’m considered “the face and the voice” of the Newseum. I am in the video exhibits that we produce here. We are totally self-sufficient; we have our own production facilities. We do everything in house. That makes it very easy for me to do the on-camera work as well. This is my full-time job and when I’m not on-camera, I also produce the video exhibits.

We are focused on the First Amendment and the history of news. We like to say that news is the first draft of history. We love when we encounter visitors interacting with our exhibits and saying, “I remember that!” or “Oh, I have heard of that!” because that’s what news is.

We also have this great wealth of knowledge from having great reporters come to the Newseum and tell us the story behind the news stories that they covered.

Be Inkandescent: What is your favorite exhibit?

Sonya Gavankar: My favorite exhibit is actually not a multimedia exhibit; it is the Watergate door—the door in the Watergate building that was taped open by the Watergate burglars. The FBI took it during the investigation, and after keeping it for years, called the Watergate management and said, “We would like the return your door to you.” Of course the door had been replaced years ago, but I guess the building manager took it.

It was sitting in his basement and he read an article about the Newseum building its new location here in Washington, and he called us and said, “I’ve got the door to the Watergate that still has all of the FBI police tape all over it. Do you want it?” We said, “We’ll be right over!” It’s now in our exhibit in our News History Gallery.

Be Inkandescent: We actually met when you were interviewing some of my clients, the financial planners at Egan, Berger & Weiner, for a new segment on News Channel 8’s “Let’s Talk Live.” So you freelance, as well?

Sonya Gavankar: I do. The Newseum lets me go during my lunch break to Channel 7 and Channel 8. I run over, park the car quickly, do the segment, and then head back to the Newseum.

Be Inkandescent: You are also very active in the nonprofit community. For five years you were the president of the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership Foundation. During your tenure, you grew the program by 50 percent and added one-day freshman events to the program, which trains hundreds of students annually. Working with young people is clearly important to you. Tell us about the foundation and the work you do there.

Sonya Gavankar: The Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership Foundation, which we call HOBY for short, is dedicated to freshman and sophomore high school students. It is all about experiential learning. It is not teaching students what to think, but how to think.

Community service is a big portion of that training. We always make sure that there is a public service component built into our programs as well. It is a great program that I went through when I was a sophomore in high school. It touched me and made me feel far more empowered with my views and what I wanted to do with my life. This is a great way for me to then give back here in Washington, DC. Building it from a great baseline has been a lot of fun.

Be Inkandescent: In addition, you are also a successful photographer and have shown your work in DC galleries. Tell us about that passion.

Sonya Gavankar: Well I really wish I were artsy. I desperately want to have cool glasses and maybe some tattoos. I have some great friends who are graphic designers who encouraged me to pick up a camera and give it a try. That encouragement really allowed me to find what I wanted to do with photography.

I started taking still-life pictures of flowers like everybody does and slowly grew that. Now I am trying to do more personality headshot work. There are plenty of experts out there who can do it, but I like capturing the personalities and characters, which is a little bit like journalism, but in a still frame, which I am finding very hard to do.

Be Inkandescent: Your success and your determination hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2012 you were awarded one of the 40under40 honors from the EnVest Foundation for your professional and philanthropic achievements in DC. How does it feel to be awarded? Is there any pressure?

Sonya Gavankar: I’m just honored that I won it before I turned 40. It is a big honor. When I showed up for the award ceremony, I didn’t know anything about the other 39 winners, and then I read their bios and felt, “This is inspiring!”

The EnVest Foundation is amazing; they do great work. They serve as an incubator for young leaders and entrepreneurs—people who want to do great work in the community. Being with such accomplished peers and bouncing ideas off of each other is helpful at this stage in our professional and philanthropic careers.

Be Inkandescent: What is ahead for you—on the journalism front, and personally?

Sonya Gavankar: 2013 is going to be a big year for me. My husband and I are starting a family this year.

How do you wrap your mind around something that you can’t? I’ll figure it out. As my mother likes to say, “You’re not the first person to have a baby.” That’s right, that’s right, so that will be a big change for us. Really doing more live, on-camera work is something that really gets me excited. I love meeting interesting people and being able to draw the best of them out as they talk about what they are bringing to the community.

Be Inkandescent: We know that you have a very bright future. Congrats on being a soon-to-be mom, and on all of your accomplishments. We’ll loop back in with you this time next year to see how you are doing!

For more information on Sonya Gavankar, visit www.sonyagavankar.com.