Within every interaction we encounter, we are teaching the world around us how we wish to be treated.
Hi, I am the current Miss Iowa, Nicole Kelly. Believe it or not, did my very first pageant this past January. I am proud to say that in one year’s time I made the journey all the way to the coveted Miss America stage. I think that is pretty good for someone who was new to the world of pageantry less than a year ago! I have found as going about my daily duties as Miss Iowa, my dress, my hair, my heels—they all lead people to immediately categorize me based on those superficial qualities alone. I find that so few people realize that the Miss America program is the world’s leading provider of scholarships to woman (I have gained enough money to almost completely wipe out my student loan debt). The Miss America program is looking for independent, intellectual, and well- rounded woman to represent their program, not just a pretty face. So, in order to prepare for the September 2013 Miss America Pageant— shopping for fancy dresses was the least of my challenges! I essentially went back to summer school to prepare for my interview and studied everything from The Affordable Care Act to Wind Energy. Therefore, given what it takes to become Miss Iowa, I think it is critically important to dispel rumors about what it means to be a “pageant girl.”
I happened to be born without my left forearm. Long before I was Miss Iowa, because of the way I was born, I already had discovered early on that people felt always compelled to categorize me. Suddenly, upon first sight of my difference, instead of being who I think of myself as– a person with personality and interests, hopes and dreams–I am suddenly a one- dimensional figure referred to as disabled. But this doesn’t mean that a stereotype about me or what I am capable of is either true or personally relevant. Stereotypes teach (and people willingly and readily accept) that a person who looks like me should not have full capability. I am proud of how I look like. I was born with only one hand. It is all that I have known and have learned how to do absolutely everything without it. Growing up I did everything from baseball to soccer to dance. I dove on my high school’s diving team, played trombone, was a lifeguard at the local YMCA, basically you name it and I did it. Today, I am much more than a pageant queen and I am more than a perceived disability. I am a total musical theater nerd, a Broadway baby, a Steve Martin fanatic, Oprah wanna-be, blonde- haired Norwegian who has more than her fair share of Swedish meatballs, lutfisk, and Jell-O salad. I am a planner and organizer, a total people person, feminist, a Christian who is the Granddaughter of a Lutheran pastor…I’m serious; I’ve only ever eaten Jell-O salad all my life…That is one very true stereotype right there.
Now many people, after learning about me, want to tell me how inspiring I am. They want to congratulate me for accomplishing so many things in my life despite looking so different. This has always confused me. I am actually no different than anyone else. I am no different than someone who has poor eye sight or deals with a mental disorder. I have been giving an aspect of my life that is different and I have learned to adjust. It truly is that simple.
After winning the title of Miss Iowa in June 2013, I was immediate national and even international headline news. At once, I was asked to be interviewed every major national news station. Believe it or not, I declined all of them. Here was the problem: Once again, it felt like the media was solely putting me into a box and they simply didn’t understand what I am about nor interested in really having me tell my story….my way. They seemed to want nothing more than for me to exploit myself as someone who had “against all odds defied expectation.” They simply wanted to put me in a box. From where I stand, a disabled person isn’t stereotyped as a beautiful person and a pageant girl isn’t stereotyped as a less than overly made up person.
It is my job as Miss Iowa speaking daily across the state of Iowa and throughout the country. Elementary school children are my favorite audience because they are so invested and receptive to my message. I like to bring with me my stuffed animal friend, Nemo, from the movie Finding Nemo as a visual aid. Nemo provides a concrete aid of a very simplified message: Nemo was born with a “Lucky fin” and Nikki was born with a “Lucky Fin.” There is an instant connection and an instant understanding within these kids. We always at the end of my talk open the floor up for questions. This is my favorite part. The children like to ask concrete questions, which I encourage with any age group, such as “how do I put up my hair or do my nails” and move into simply affirming that they understood my message. The questions become responses such as, “My cousin has a big scar on his left knee so it’s ok to be different.” These are always the most beautiful response to receive for it is affirmation that I am in fact teaching the next generation on how I, and others like me, wish to be treated. Treated not with pity or difference but to be met with an educated understanding that my difference is just like your difference and if we all have differences then that makes us the same.
If I have come to realize anything within my journey through Miss America and as Miss Iowa, it is that it is useless to complain about situations you’ve been handed (Yes…that was a cheesy one handed joke). I must take full responsibly for teaching the world how I wish to be treated. I am a young twenty something who is simply trying to find her way in this world and is asking the world to start a conversation and start changing stereotypes. Thank you.
PS Check out this link of a recent video I did!