OAKLAND -- It's not often that a Kaiser Permanente physician also holds the title of Miss California. However, Rita Ng, a cardiologist with the hospital for more than two years, has bridged those two very different worlds.
"The experience of being Miss California for a year made me a more compassionate person and physician," said Ng, who held the title in 2000 -- the first Asian American to do so in the pageant's 80-year history.
"It helps me see my patients as people and individuals. Every patient is special."
The newlywed Ng, 36, who lives with her husband and sister in Montclair, stumbled upon the world of pageants quite by accident.
"Lipstick was never part of my vocabulary," Ng said. "I was a self-described 'pre-med nerd.' "
Ng was preparing to graduate from Stanford University and enter medical school at UCSF when her college thesis adviser endorsed her for a profile in "Glamour" magazine's "Top 10 College Women." After her profile was published, she got a call from a modeling agency in New York, asking her to take part in a global beauty campaign with Proctor & Gamble skin and hair products.
"I said, 'I think you're calling the wrong person, I don't even wear makeup,' " Ng said. "I initially said 'no' -- modeling was not something that had ever crossed my radar."
However, when the agency approached Ng again, telling her that a portion of the campaign money would go to Save The Children, she changed her mind.
"Philanthropy and community service are what I've always been passionate about," said Ng, who grew up in Tracy with her first-generation Chinese-American parents and four siblings. "My parents always encouraged us to do well at school, work hard and contribute to the community."
While Ng was jetting back and forth to New York and Los Angeles for modeling shoots -- "It made for a very busy senior year" -- her sister Ruby, also a student at Stanford, entered Ng in the Miss Los Altos pageant.
"Ruby saw a flyer for the event and, unbeknownst to me, entered me in the competition," Ng said. "I wore the gown that I'd worn to the winter formal and some lip gloss."
Ng, an accomplished pianist, played her favorite Beethoven piece and landed the Miss Los Altos title, which automatically qualified her to compete for Miss California.
"I didn't expect to win; I thought it would be a fun adventure before heading off to medical school," said Ng, who later completed her cardiology training at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. "There were about 55 beautiful, smart girls competing -- to say I was intimidated would be an understatement."
She competed on a platform of public health and health care equity, a category in which she took first place before the interview panel.
After being crowned Miss California 2000, Ng sat down with the organizers who asked her if she would be able to defer medical school for a year, to serve as Miss California.
"UCSF traditionally doesn't defer medical school for students, so I wasn't sure what to expect. When I called the admissions office and explained, there was complete silence on the other end of the phone. Then I heard someone say, 'I can't believe I'm talking to Miss California,'" said Ng, adding that the university was "very sweet and supportive" and agreed to the one-year deferral.
Ng went on to represent California in the Miss America pageant in Atlanta in 2001, where she was second runner-up.
After being crowned Miss California, Ng traveled across the United States and around the world, simultaneously promoting humanitarian causes that are important to her.
"The title and crown gave me a voice to draw attention to my passion, which is health care," said Ng, who still gives keynote speeches and piano recitals at charitable events. "It opened my eyes to so many people doing amazing things."
It also dispelled stereotypes that she had about beauty pageants.
"Pageants focus on beauty, but not only external beauty, beauty of the internal kind as well," said Ng, who met many "amazing women who are friends for life."
She also learned that the Miss California and Miss America pageants are nonprofit organizations run by volunteers.
"All the money from the competitions goes to girls' scholarships -- it's the leading source for scholarship money for girls in the world," Ng said.
Ng said she loves the East Bay and its diversity as well as working at Kaiser Permanente, which shares her passion for preventive medicine.
"When I was a little girl I dreamed of becoming a physician -- I always loved science and biology," she said. "I'm lucky that I get to heal hearts and help sick people -- it's a goal I've aspired to all my life."
Ng is also thrilled that pageants have become so ethnically diverse. In 2013, both the winner and runner-up in the Miss America pageant were of Asian descent.
"I think it's phenomenal, I'm so proud of their accomplishments," Ng said. "It goes to show how far this program has progressed. We are a land of so many diverse cultures and ethnicities -- that's what makes it so beautiful."