It was only when she turned 12, did she build up courage to tell her best friend about the domestic physical and mental abuse, eventually leading to a court case and then to foster care as recently as 2013. So it’s no surprise that Priya Gopal-Walker sounds very mature at 17. The daughter of an Indian-American mother and a Native American father who was a Vietnam vet, Priya took hold of her life early.
She began flying alone since she was 5, from Seattle to California once a month to visit her dad who lived away from her mother, on an Indian reservation. She cooked her own food, made her own schedules early on. She is an example of the resiliency of children. For being brought up by a mother with a volatile nature, Priya sounds cool, calm and collected, mouthing mature words and ideas in a voice that still carries a childish lilt during her interview with Desi Talk.
The only time she sounds confused is when asked if she could explain why her mother flew into rages or put her down, at the same time as she arranged for her to learn Indian dance, Bollywood and Bharat Natyam, and took her to Indian events, much like other Indian-American parents. “I believe she has mental issues, but I don’t know,” her voice trails off. “She was like two different people. On the one hand a woman who would mother me, and on another a person who could be so incredibly violent. It left me confused.”
Today, Priya stands as an epitome of success, victorious over her trials and tribulations, recently winning the Miss Washington Teen pageant, and waiting to step onto the bigger stage in the Aug. 22 Miss Teen USA competition to be held in Atlantis Paradise Island hotel in Nassau, Bahamas.
“Priya is extraordinary because she did not let life’s adversities stop her from fulfilling her dream,” Maureen Francisco, co-executive producer of State Pageant Qualifier to Miss USA and Miss Teen USA for Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington, told Desi Talk. Francisco and colleagues have checked out Priya’s credentials thoroughly and while she could not give out information due to privacy rules, she indicated they have legal documents relating to the child abuse case.
As Priya tells it, her mother lived in Hawaii when she met a holidaying Vietnam vet and they fell in love and married. They then moved to the mainland where Priya was born. She was brought up by her mother in Seattle while her Dad chose to live on the reservation hundreds of miles away. “But they still loved each other. They had to live separately, my father was a Vietnam veteran and he needed his own space,” she says.
“For a very long time my mother was abusing me emotionally and physically,” Priya said. “She also told me if I ever asked for help no one would help.” Still a small child, Priya believed her and didn’t tell anyone, not even her father she says because, ” I didn’t know how to tell him, especially when he was still so madly in love with her. They talked all the time. It was a long-distance relationship.”
It was in the Summer of Grade 8 that Priya finally opened up and told her best friend Danielle about the abuse. “She (Danielle) supported me and helped me to figure out how to ask for help,” Priya recalls. At the beginning of 9th Grade, “I found my voice.” Danielle told her parents and suddenly help was all around, her school counselor, her advisor, her pageant coach, everyone stepped up to the plate. It wasn’t at all like her mother had said. “After telling about it I finally got out of that situation and realized there were so many people who cared about me.”
Now, she says, she gets to help other children who may be going through a situation like her own. “No matter how much anyone tells you otherwise, you have the support,” she asserts.
“Priya reclaimed something that her mother had forced on her: pageants, and used them to speak out against domestic violence and encourage those who don’t have a voice like she used to,” her best friend Danielle said preferring to respond by email rather than an interview. She is amazed by Priya’s accomplishments, she says. “I think that Priya is quite mature for her age because she had to take care of herself when she was younger, as unfair as being in an abusive, and at times, neglectful home, it formed her into the strong person she is now!” Beyond all that, Danielle said, “She is just such a loyal, compassionate, quirky person and I’m so happy to call her my best friend!”
After Priya’s case was heard by a judge and the ruling came in her favor, she moved around from on foster home to another until November 2013, when she found the “awesome” foster parents she loves. “They are such incredible people and when I decided to go for Miss Washington Teen, they encouraged me.”
Even as the pageant looms, Priya also feels the weight of getting ready for senior year of high school at the Seattle Academy of Arts & Sciences, a private school where she has been since Grade 6. She is also caught up in thinking about sending applications for college. “I want to be in a big city and a big school. I want to work in both non-profit and the business sectors,” she says.
“So many teens get discouraged. But with Priya, she knew there’s a better way. She’s an inspiration,” Francisco.
Priya is seemingly still in touch with her extended Indian family. None of them will be able to come to the pageant she said because they are attending a wedding scheduled for the same day as the pageant finals Aug. 22.
“But they’ll all be watching online,” she adds.
Priya still visits her father but she has not seen her mother since the court case ruling which separated them. Her grandmother’s chicken curry is still her favorite dish, and suji halwa “with raisins” is her favorite dessert. “My grandmother taught me how to make it.” But daal and bananas are her least favorite. You can hear her wrinkle her nose. “When I was little, I feel like that was all I ate.” Priya grew up speaking Hindi, eating Indian food, and going to temples.
This Summer she went on a school trip India. “This was my first time in India this April. It was incredible and it really felt like home,” she exclaimed. “I’ve been out of the Indian environment for a few years, so it was wonderful to be in India and eating my favorite foods,” she said. “I can’t wait to go back.”
She loves Bollywood dancing, something she went to classes for since childhood. She hasn’t watched Bollywood movies in a few years but Aishwarya Rai is her favorite actress. She doesn’t know who her favorite male Bollywood actor is, but Johnny Depp is her heartthrob from Hollywood.
“If I could have a profession as a Bollywood dancer, I would,” she laughs half serious. Her dress for the evening gown segment of the pageant tailored by Seattle-based designers Third & Loom, “does have a sort of Indian design,” is all she could reveal about it. She is spending her time catching up on world events and building her confidence for the on-stage question which could b on “anything,” she says.
While all the contestants are “incredible,” the confident Indian-American believes what sets her apart is being pushed into an adult role from a young age. “I am very independent and in charge of my life — just because I had to be,” she declares.