Blog from 2015:
To appreciate this story fully – I have to take you back a bit in time. So, last year in June of 2013 I took on the full time job of Miss Iowa.
Jenn Cady Photography
This job did include big hair, wearing earrings the size of my face, and walking in high heels for extended periods of time. However, when I look back at my year in this position I don’t think about the scary feelings of watching my name and face blown up in world news as “Disabled Woman To Attend Miss America,” or the hundreds of hours I spent alone in a car driving across the state to make appearances, or the constant pressure to look and act a certain way. Perception verses reality is currently my favorite concept and by being a girl born with one hand it was perception that someone like me could never compete in a competition that had to do with a world perceived to be only based on beauty. Yet, in my year as Miss Iowa it was my job to daily travel and speak on what MY perception of beauty was – and it had nothing to do with what looks were on the outside. When I look back at my year as Miss Iowa I think fondly about the relationships I made and the lives I had the honor to effect.
So me, Nikki Kelly: Someone who was born with only half of her left arm yet was never treated with pity and was encouraged to succeed in everything from baseball to basketball to diving. I was raised to never believe in the word “pity” as it had no place in my life and I succeeded in things I tried because I put forth the effort and care the opportunities deserved. Yet, after I won I became the “queen” of a world I didn’t even realize existed. I became the leading lady of every mother who had a child born with any kind of limb difference. Emails started to flood into the Miss Iowa address at a rapid speed and I learned very quickly that I was representing a group of people that passionately looked to me to change perceptions.
Flash forward to three months after I won Miss Iowa – In September 2013 I was at the coveted Miss America competition and feeling a pressure that is too complex to explain. I was feeling exhilarated to be with girls from all over the country who were intelligent and interesting, I was scared to sing on stage (talking in front of many has never been a problem but singing makes me SOOOOO nervous), I was mad at the organization for pressuring me to interview with media outlets I felt were not credible, and I was excited at the prospect of taking on a job that would lead me to interact with millions. Yet, through all of these emotions, I tried my best to keep my focus in the forefront: The little girls who looked up to me and the parents who looked to me to change perceptions. Cheesy? Maybe, but why else would I volunteer myself to walk in a swimsuit onstage? What I mean to say is that I was willing to take on every single part of the job – be it easy or hard/swimsuit or not – in order to show how much I believed in the good the Miss American Organization was doing in the world.
At Miss America there are three nights of preliminary competition prior to the final two hour long live telecast in which they crown the new Miss America. After every night of competition the girls competing are allowed a precious few minutes to meet with family and friends who have traveled so far to support them. After the second night of preliminaries a precious angel walked into the meeting time to meet with me. This angel was named Gianna and she was a four year old who was born with only half of her left arm. She was escorted into the room in order to meet the princess that was just like her and it was in these moments that a truly magical relationship began.
This four year old – who had sat completely still and enamored throughout the two hours of preliminary competition – now was meeting in person her real live princess. Now, up until this point I had never blatantly been someone’s real live favorite princess. I had never experienced someone who looked at me with complete and utter idealism, and it was at this point that nothing else mattered. Any feelings I felt about competing for the job of Miss America went away. Yes, winning the job would have been awesome, however the change I was looking to make was right in front of me. It was for the reason of the look in this little girl’s eyes that feeling all of the (#firstworldproblems) pressure of competing melted away.
September 12, 2013
Sept 12, 2013
A few days later Gianna watched the live telecast of Miss America from the comfort of her DVR at home in New Jersey. Gianna went on to watch her copy of the live telecast daily (or multiple times a day) until she had every word spoken by Laura Spencer and Chris Hairrison (hosts of the competition) memorized.
Now if you are not publically “AHHHHHHHH-ing” at your computer maybe this photo of her dressed as Miss America for Halloween last year will do the trick:
Still not squealing out loud? How about these photos from her MISS AMERICA BIRTHDAY PARTY:
Still no emotions? Still no emotions!!!!!? Aright how about Gianna being called up and crowned a princess at the Miss New Jersey pageant this year by my amazing friend Cara McCollum, Miss New Jersey 2013? (RIP Cara we love you and miss you everyday)
As you can see: being a mentor to this extremely adorable child is a job that I took very seriously. My actions and interactions with her were something close to a fairytale. However, this is a tricky line to tread. Yes, I wore a crown as part of my “uniform” last year, however the real mentorship with BabyG had nothing to do with me actually being a princess (DUH!). It was more important for me to be a REAL person within every interaction. To show her that with confidence and an adventurous spirit nothing and nobody could stop her.
My main mentor in pride for my difference was not a person – but a musical. I was 13 when the musical Wicked hit Broadway and to say I was obsessed is an understatement. (How middle school girl of me, right?) Wicked was all I talked about, sang, thought about, and was the only gift I asked for for every birthday and Christmas for multiple years. In the event you’re not a musical theater buff or have just been living under a rock for ten years – Wicked is the Prequel to the Wizard of Oz. It tells the story of how the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda actually started as friends and the emotions and perception of the Wicked Witch’s difference is a key point addressed in the show. Thus the discussion and pride associated with the difference was something a 13 year old Nikki certainly needed to hear.
Wicked truly was the first taste of PRIDE I ever felt in my difference. Now imagine my complete and total extreme emotions and excitement when Gianna’s father reached out to me and suggested that I accompany Gianna to her very first Broadway musical. I got to go to my source of strength and pride with a little girl who looked to me as a source of strength and pride. There are no words that encapsulate how special of a night this was for me.
During the song Dancing Through Life:
BabyG: “Are Galinda and Elphaba friends now?”
BabyG: “Yeah, because sometimes people are just born looking different…but we can all be friends still.”
Now if that didn’t hit you right in the heart: I give up!!
Now, over one year after my relationship began with Gianna and her amazing family I am still directly involved in their lives. In fact, just last week I spent time in her school, giving a school assembly, and in her classroom leading activities. (I have since been back to her new school and spoken too) I also was able to stay at Gianna’s house and play pageant (bet you can’t guess who won), go out to eat at her favorite restaurant, and wake up to a smiling 5 year old crawling into bed next to me. And it won’t stop here, either. Gianna and her family will continue to be a part of my family and a part of my life for as long as they will let me. I love being a part of their family.
Competing in the talent portion of our play pageant
Reading all about our LUCKY FINS in Finding Nemo
Gianna’s family has embraced me and the world of pageantry with their whole heart because they feel a direct result of what this program is doing on a daily basis. This relationship is way past wearing a crown that sparkles. This relationship has turned into full-on mentorship, friendship, and a love for one another. THIS is what I believe the Miss America Organization is all about: A willingness and openness to connect and make a difference. I walked in a swimsuit and sang on stage not because I wanted my photo taken or fame to follow. I did those things because I had the understanding that this pageant world (which also almost completely wiped out every penny of my student loans) gave me a large enough stage to connect and share my platform outside of my normal reach. And because I am a strong, independent, limitless woman who a girl like BabyG should have in her life to look up to!
Update since Blog was originally written:
Speaking at Gianna's NEW school this year.
Spending time in NYC for BabyG's Birthday
Playing dress up (mostly TONS lip gloss) at her house
Roadtrip to Helping Hands in Boston