Mekayla Diehl drew widespread attention and admiration on Twitter for her fit, healthy figure at Sunday's Miss USA pageant

By Michelle Ward
June 12, 2014 01:45 PM
Credit: Jonathan Bachman/AP

Miss Indiana Mekayla Diehl didn’t even make it into the top 10 in the Miss USA pageant on Sunday, but she did go home with a title: social-media star.

Praised for her "normal" figure on Twitter, the 5’8″, size-4 beauty queen was blown away by the attention.

“For someone who had just been knocked out of the competition because her swimsuit scores weren’t high enough, it was a boost of confidence that I needed to enjoy the night,” she tells PEOPLE.

Not that confidence is an issue for Diehl, 25, who worked with a nutritionist and personal trainer to get her now-famous physique. “I think the normality that everybody keeps talking about is just the fact that I’m relatable,” she says. “I’m confident in my own skin. I didn’t obsess over being too skinny or not being tall enough. I knew that I would be going up against some girls that were 6’1″ and professional models. That’s them; I’m celebrating who I am.”

Having a self-described “athletic build,” the college volleyball star maintained a high-protein, low-carb diet and exercised up to seven days a week, gaining almost 10 lbs. of muscle before the competition. “Before I started training for Miss Indiana USA, I weighed around 128 lbs.,” says Diehl. “Then I gained muscle mass and weighted around 135, 137 lbs. when I left for Miss USA. I didn’t really worry about my weight. It’s just a number.”

She added: “It’s so funny that people are calling me curvy because I’m naturally quite the opposite. I’m so up and down,” says the Bristol, Indiana, native. “I actually worked to emphasize the small of my waist to make me look a bit curvier.”

This experience has also brought on a new platform for Diehl, who, in addition to raising awareness of child abuse, hopes to be an advocate for positive self-image and healthy lifestyles in her home state.

As for her being a body-image role model, she says, “If I’m inspiring, then in the end, I’ve won in more ways then I ever could have imagined.”