Sunday June 17, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- Olivia Culpo is looking forward to the next year of her life. Culpo, 20, is excited about voting in her first national election. Oh yeah, that business of carrying out the duties of Miss USA? We need to mention that, too.

It's not the entire enchilada, but Pittsfield can boast of having a healthy slice of a pretty big pie.

Culpo, who won the Miss USA pageant two weeks ago in Las Vegas, when she competed as Miss Rhode Island, spent much of her youth -- summers especially -- visiting and living in Pittsfield.

The pageant win has only served to expand an already impressive Culpo family resume. The Culpos, in fact, have cast a rather long shadow on the city for the better part of 50 years, and the clan agrees that Olivia's Miss USA crown rests securely on the top shelf in family lore.

"It's been a whirlwind," said Olivia, who lives in Cranston, R.I., and who will forgo her junior year at Boston University while she tours the U.S. in her new role. "It's been a couple of weeks and it's just now beginning to hit me. I'm just now starting to get comfortable with my new surroundings."

Those surroundings are the Trump Tower in New York City. Culpo will call that home during her reign while under the direction of the Miss Universe Organization, which now plans her life 24/7 for the next year.

So, Olivia, will you cast a vote for Obama or Romney in November? The media will surely want to know in what direction Miss USA will fall.

"I think my message will be that it's important to be politically active," she said. "I think that's better than expressing my own views."

Not that Olivia is afraid to express her opinion. After she made the cut and advanced to the final 15, she had to answer a live on-stage question. The judges asked her to take a stance on transgender women being allowed to compete in beauty pageants.

Miss Rhode Island Olivia Culpo is surrounded by fellow contestants after being crowned. Olivia hails from the Pittsfield Culpos.
Miss Rhode Island Olivia Culpo is surrounded by fellow contestants after being crowned. Olivia hails from the Pittsfield Culpos. (Associated Press)
After a brief moment in thought, she answered with a verbal thumbs-up and concluded by saying it's a "free country."

"I just spoke from the heart," she said.

Her poise in answering that question might, she believed, have separated her from the pack just a bit.

"I was just happy to make that cut to 15 contestants," she said. "I wanted to do at least that much so that the trip my family and friends made out there would be worth it."

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The Culpo family, almost by the strength of their own sheer will, KOs the odds and strikes gold with amazing regularity. So it makes sense that the once short, chubby girl would emerge in this fashion. Olivia's favorite Pittsfield destination growing up was King Cone on First Street, and you might have seen her standing on North Street during Fourth of July parades trying to squeeze between taller adults just to get a glimpse of a different kind of pageantry. Most recently Olivia was in Pittsfield to celebrate Easter with the family.

Her mother, Susan Culpo, is an accomplished viola player who has performed with the Boston Pops and the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood. That meant a lot of summers in the Berkshires for Olivia, who herself is an accomplished cello player and has traveled overseas with youth orchestras.

When Madeline Cantarella Culpo's son, Christopher, began to earn notoriety in the early 1990s as a pianist and symphonic, stage and jazz composer, there was a little extra skip in her step. When her son, Paul, began to move up in the ranks in men's college basketball coaching circles -- he is now head coach at Castleton State College in Vermont -- she danced with joy.

And when grandson, Michael, made his second national television appearance in as many years in the NCAA men's basketball tournament as a member of the Long Island University team this past March, she was overwhelmed with delight. And of course, there's Peter, the father of Miss USA 2012 and a successful Rhode Island businessman.

But when her granddaughter Olivia won the Miss USA pageant, Madeline might have just plain moonwalked.

Madeline, 78, is the founder, director and artistic director of the Albany Berkshire Ballet. She's a Pittsfield native who is well known and highly respected for her stellar work in teaching dance. She was in Las Vegas for the event along with about 30 of Olivia's friends and family.

"I'm in the theater business," said Madeline, "and I know there are many aspects to a competition like this. Everything from answering questions and how you sound to how you look in a bathing suit. I had a hard time trying to be objective. I kept going from someone who has cast roles from auditions her entire life to just being ‘grandma.' I thought she'd get to the final 15, but that's just me. It became five and then two -- we were numb at that point. I have to say, though, the family is having a lot of fun with this right now."

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Paul Culpo and his older brother, Mark, were standout basketball players at St. Joe's during the 1980s. Paul, who is one of Madeline and the late John Culpo's five children, spent time on the University of Massachusetts men's basketball coaching staff and now calls the shots at Castleton. He said that members of his team are already hitting him up for Olivia's phone number.

"Honestly, I haven't had the time to process everything," said Paul, who watched the pageant from home with his wife and two young daughters. "I really can't put it into words."

Paul celebrated his 42nd birthday the same weekend at Olivia's win. He changed the message on his cell phone to say, "You've reached Paul Culpo, the uncle of Miss USA."

Chris, meanwhile, was working in South Africa and called Paul by phone just seconds before the Miss USA winner was announced.

"It was pretty emotional," Paul said. "I could hear people crying for joy on the other end of the phone. But that call from Chris pretty much typifies our family. We are close."

Mike, 23, was also in Las Vegas to cheer on his cousin. He said that he thought competing for the Miss USA title was a lot more pressure than competing in the men's Divi sion 1 basketball tournament.

"I've played in thousands of basketball games and it's such a team thing anyway," said Mike, who attended St. Joe for one year before prepping for one year in New York and three years in Rhode Island. "And after a few minutes, you forget you're on television. But this pageant was different. You're doing it alone and you know it's a big deal and on television because they are cueing the audience during commercials and things like that. I definitely thought it was tougher than playing in the NCAA tournament."

Olivia, however, said Mike's hardwood tournament battles were of equal intensity.

"Put me down as disagreeing with him," she said, laughing.

"Miss Rhode Island was the first pageant in which she ever competed. She was still new to this kind of thing. To compete and win was so impressive," Mike added.

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When Mike prepped in Rhode Island, he spent many weekends at his Uncle Peter's house. He said Olivia is like a little sister to him.

Olivia's dad, Peter, the successful businessman, graduated from Pittsfield High in 1974 before moving to Cranston where he and Susan are raising five children. For the record, Olivia is the middle child.

"We're not really a pageant family," Peter said. "I was so proud of Olivia, especially after she won Miss Rhode Island.

"She would come home for weekends from BU on Friday nights. Instead of going out, she would go to bed and get up early on Saturday. She dieted and worked out. I told her that she'd be successful no matter what she did because of that work ethic."

His reaction to the big prize?

"Logic dictates you're not going to win," Peter said. "So you try and go into something like this with the appropriate attitude. But those who fail to plan are planning to fail. I think it was [football coach] Bill Parcells who said that many people like to win, but few are willing to work hard toward that goal. Olivia did work."

The Culpo rooting section was more than a little on edge as the Miss USA field was reduced from the original 51 to the pageant's version of a "Sweet 15."

The list of those who survived was read in no particular order. "Miss Rhode Island" was called as the 14th name.

"My sister [Lisa] called me from Las Vegas at one point and told me she thought Olivia would be in the final 15," Paul said. "But when it came down to the final two, well, that part was extremely excruciating."

Olivia stood with Miss Maryland -- the two clasping hands -- and waited for what seemed like forever for the final decision.

"I sort of looked into the camera at one point and smiled," Olivia said. "I felt confident, but more important I felt good about how I had done on stage during the pageant. I just tried to be the person I am. I just wanted to be me."

Brian Sullivan can be reached at mariavicsullivan@yahoo.com.

Other notable Culpos

Olivia Culpo, recently crowned Miss USA, hails from Pittsfield's Culpo family, whose members leave a long list of notable ac complishments. Here are a few:

Madeline Cantarella Culpo: Olivia's grandmother. Director, founder of Albany-Berkshire Ballet. Graduate of The Julliard School. Has taught nationally, including stints at Jacob's Pillow. Career includes three choreography fellowships from National Endowment for the Arts.

Alice Cantarella: Olivia's great-grandmother; Madeline's mother. Mrs. Cantarella, of Pittsfield, passed away on Friday afternoon after about a year of failing health. She was 101.

John Culpo: Olivia's grandfather, Madeline's husband. Died in 2004 at age 71. Born in North Adams on Christmas Day. Graduated from Cranwell Prep in Lenox in 1951. Was world-class accordian player who performed on stage at both Carnegie Hall and Tanglewood. Performed with Army band during Korean War. Local landlord who sold Kinnell building at 49 North St. to city in 2001. Purchase led eventually to the building of the Beacon Cinema, a move key to the downtown turnaround.

Peter Culpo: Olivia's father. A successful businessman in Cranston, R.I. Graduated from Pittsfield High in 1974.

Paul Culpo: Olivia's uncle, Madeline and John's son. High school basketball standout at St. Joe. Currently head men's basketball coach at Castleton State College in Vermont. Prevously coached at Hartwick St. Michael's and was on staff at UMass-Amherst. Coached professionally in England.

Mike Culpo: Olivia's cousin. Son of John Culpo Jr. Recently graduated from Long Island University where he was a member of the men's basketball team that twice earned a berth in the NCAA Division 1 tournament. Hopes to play professionally overseas.

Chris Culpo: Olivia's uncle, Madeline and John's son. Has lived in Paris since 1991. Accomplished pianist and composer who has written music for dance, stage, chamber venues and has written original material and improvised written music for silent films. Graduate of Boston University and The Julliard School. Has released three albums in the past five years.

Susan Curran Culpo: Olivia's mother. Native of Cranston, R.I., where the family still resides. Accomplished viola player. Traveled overseas with youth orchestras. Graduate of Boston University. Earned fellowship to study at Tanglewood. Studied at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute under the direction of Leonard Bernstein. For 20 years has been an extra player for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Boston Pops.