Culpo was born in Cranston, Rhode Island to Gus and Sophie Culpo. She is the middle of five children. She attended St. Mary Academy – Bay View located in Riverside, Rhode Island.
Growing up, Culpo found a love for music. She began studying the cello in second grade. She performed with the Rhode Island Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, the Rhode Island Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble, the Bay View Orchestra and the Rhode Island All-State Orchestra. In addition, she attended the Brevard Music Center located in Brevard, North Carolina for two summers and has performed with the Boston Accompanietta.
After graduation, Culpo attended Boston University located in Boston, Massachusetts. In 2010, she was signed by Maggie, Inc., a Boston modeling agency. After nearly two years of modeling, Culpo entered her first pageant, Miss Rhode Island USA 2012. She won the crown and went on to compete in the 61st annual Miss USA Pageant.
Culpo competed against 50 other contestants in what was her second pageant ever. On June 3, 2012 she was crowned Miss USA 2012 at The AXIS located in Las Vegas, Nevada. She made history as the first contestant from Maryland to win the title of Miss USA.
Culpo then went on to represent the United States as the 61st annual Miss Universe Pageant. She competed against 87 other contestants for the title. In her third pageant ever, Culpo was crowned Miss Universe 2012 on December 19, 2012 at the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino located in Las Vegas, Nevada. She was crowned by the outgoing Miss Universe 2012, Leila Lopes, from Angola. Culpo was the first contestant from the United States to win the Miss Universe crown since Brook Lee of Hawaii was crowned Miss Universe 1997.
During her reign, Culpo traveled to Indonesia, Russia, Ecuador, Morocco, The Bahamas, Canada, England, India and across the United States. She advocated for HIV/AIDS Awareness as well as organizations including God’s Love We Deliver and YouthAIDS PSI. She also walked in fashion shows for designer Sherri Hill.
Towards the end of her reign, Culpo made a trip to India from September 27, 2012 until October 6, 2012. While there, Culpo participated in a photoshoot, posing in high-heeled shoes at Diana Seat on Central Tank at Taj Mahal. The photoshoot landed her and the Miss Universe Organization in hot water for allegedly violating product placement rules at the Taj Mahal.
Culpo later apologized for the photoshoot, claiming she never wanted to participate in the photoshoot and calling it “inappropriate.” The Miss Universe Organization also released the following statement:
“Throughout her reign, the Miss Universe Organization continually creates video diaries of our titleholder to keep fans and sponsors up to date on her travels and to share in the experience. As part of these videos, we sometimes incorporate sponsors into these shoots. The filming that took place outside the Taj Mahal was never intended to be used as a commercial nor was it meant in any way to be disrespectful. We sincerely apologize for any unintentional harm our indiscretion and insensitivity may have caused.”
Culpo went on to crown her successor, Miss Universe 2013, Gabriela Isler of Venezuela, on November 9, 2013 at Crocus City Hall located in Krasnogorsk, a suburb of Moscow, Russia.
After crowning her successor, Culpo began pursuing a career in acting and modeling. She appeared in multiple films including “The Other Woman” and “I Feel Pretty.” She also appeared in Nick Jonas’ music video “Jealous.”
At the beginning of 2018, Culpo was announced as a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Rookie. She was featured in the 2018 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition in a photoshoot titled, "In Her Own Words.” Culpo wore nothing but painted words on her skin, which reflected attributes and insecurities in her life.
In October of 2018, it was announced that Culpo would be featured in the 2019 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, this time donning a bikini. In early November 2018, she also announced via Instagram she had signed with talent company, The Society Management.
Culpo made the cover and number one spot of Maxim's Hot 100 World's Sexiest Women in July/August 2019. Her response to being voted at number one was, “It’s honestly something that I’ve always dreamed of since I was so little. It’s really humbling...”
She designed a women’s collection with the retail brand Express, which launched in 2019 with four billboards on Times Square.