Nikki Haley, 38, the favourite to become the first governor of South Carolina who is neither white nor male, has always challenged established norms with her own brand of moxie.
As a girl, her parents — the first Indian immigrants this small, working-class town had ever seen — entered Nikki and her sister in the Little Miss Bamberg pageant. The judges of the contest, one that crowned one black queen and one white queen, were so flummoxed that they simply disqualified Nikki and her sister, Simran — but not before Nikki, about 5, sang This Land Is Your Land.
Haley upended things again last week after a sharp-elbowed primary that included allegations of marital infidelity and pitted her against the lieutenant governor, the attorney general and a congressman.
Haley, a state legislator, received 49 per cent of the vote, but faces a June 22 runoff with Representative Gresham Barrett, whom she beat by more than 25 points on Tuesday.
And this from a campaign that was so underfinanced that it had to sell yard signs at $5 apiece, Haley said.
Now, she finds herself one of the brightest rising stars in the Republican Party, a Tea Party favourite, a Sarah Palin endorsee and the subject of national attention.
Haley — born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa — said that growing up in Bamberg was at times tough. Her father wears a turban and, though male Sikhs are not supposed to cut their hair, her brothers' was trimmed after teasing at school grew vicious.
But her political rise has raised questions about her difference, and she has become more careful about how she presents the religious aspect, in particular, of her life.
"I was born and raised with the Sikh faith, my husband and I were married in the Methodist Church, our children" — Nalin, 8, and Rena, 12 — "have been baptised in the Methodist Church, and currently we attend both," she said.
She did not mention that she and her husband, Michael Haley, wed in two ceremonies, one Sikh and the other at St. Andrew's by-the-Sea, a Methodist church in Hilton Head, where Haley's parents live.