Miss America Didn't Even Realize Domestic Violence 'Was Happening to Me'

Miss America Didn't Even Realize Domestic Violence 'Was Happening to Me'
Miss America Kira Kazantsev
Mel Evans/AP

09/17/2014 AT 02:50 PM EDT

Although Miss America Kira Kazantsev chose to be playful during the talent portion of last weekend's competition with her red-cup rendition of Pharrell's "Happy," her platform is strictly all business.

A survivor of domestic violence, the blonde beauty, 23, is committed to raising awareness of the topic, which has become even more of a hot-button issue with the news surrounding NFL player Ray Rice. On Tuesday, Meredith Vieira opened up about her own past confrontation with abuse.

Out of the 53 Miss America contestants, "three girls in the pageant had this as their platform, which shows how relevant it is," Kazantsev tells PEOPLE. "We see it in the news, and we see it everywhere now."

Often, says Kazantsev, the last person to see it is the victim.

"I didn't even know it was happening to me," says the New Yorker. "It took outside words and opinions from friends and family for me to realize what I was going through."

She further advises, "People often think, it's none of my business – that's their personal relationship. Well, it is your business to step in and say something. Even if it's just to hand them a hotline card."

That may be just the encouragement a victim needs to take action, though ultimately, says Kazantsev, "It's up to the woman to decide when it's right for her to decide [the next steps]. Every woman is an expert in her own life."

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