Then came the night of the Miss Universe pageant. She and a couple of friends watched it in a 49th Street restaurant; Meriwether knew she would be awarded the Miss USA title if her new friend, Culpo, should be crowned Miss Universe.

Before long, Meriwether says, her friend's victory became a foregone conclusion. "I just knew, from the moment she stepped into the top five, that she was going to win. I didn't even hear her answer to the final question, I just knew. She was so gorgeous."

When Culpo was announced as the new Miss Universe, the restaurant erupted into applause — not for Culpo's victory, but because everyone knew, by this time, that they had a soon-to-be Miss USA in their midst.

"The entire restaurant was cheering, 'Oh, my gosh. Miss USA is here.' The next day, I got a phone call and [the pageant organizers] were, like, 'So, you want to be Miss USA?' "

Meriwether's mother, who reacted to the news with a two-minute screaming jag over the telephone, says she is especially proud that Nana refused to give up, even during her run of second-place finishes.

"I was jumping up and down, I was so happy," Nomvimbi Meriwether says. "I was so excited for her. I was glad that she realized the importance of persevering, of setting goals."

Adds her father, "It's not an end in itself, but it is a welcome opportunity."

Don't think Nana Meriwether doesn't realize that. While med school still looms on the horizon, she's also considering careers in broadcasting and entertainment — possibly even politics, "later, maybe when I'm 40 or something."

But for now, she's making the most of her first three months as Miss USA, not only in terms of enjoying the moment — she has appeared at the presidential inauguration, the Sundance Film Festival and New York's Fashion Week — but as a chance to make connections that could come in handy down the road. Her new title, after all, has a limited shelf life.

In short, she says, there's an upside to being the oldest Miss USA ever.

"I'm so glad I won now, at my age," she says. "It's given me perspective on the title — everyone I meet, I know, has a certain purpose, and I can use that to further something in my life. I don't think I would have understood that when I was younger."

Miss USA fact

Nana Meriwether has already held the crown longer than the only previous Miss Maryland to win it. In 1957, Leona Gage of Glen Burnie won the title but had to give it up the following day after admitting she was married — a no-no under pageant rules — and had two kids.

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