It’s something Keokuk native Nicole Kelly plans to continue speaking about – long past her days of wearing the Miss Iowa crown.
Kelly, Miss Iowa 2013, recently stopped in Decorah to attend lunch with the Decorah Rotary Club before speaking during an evening engagement at Luther College.
Born without a left forearm, Kelly is grateful to her family for always treating her like everyone else.
“It (her disability) was a non-issue, I saw myself and lived my life as a whole person,” she said, adding that is not always the case for many of the children she meets.
“Parents (of children with disabilities) are so interesting for me to encounter, because many of them treat their children as disabled. There is nothing more disheartening for me,” she said.
Kelly grew up in a world without boundaries, trying everything from baseball, to dance to diving.
“I finally found my passion within a world where I was giving people permission to stare… the stage,” she said.
In May of 2012, Kelly graduated from the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a degree in directing and theatre management.
She has a number of summer internships to her credit, including the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachussetts, the Santa Fe (N.M.) Opera, the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York City and the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
An idea forms
Kelly said up until a little over a year ago, she had never considered the world of pageantry.
“Then I had a friend reach out and ask me about it and I thought, ‘Why not? What have I got to lose?’” she said.
In order to prepare for the Miss Iowa pageant, Kelly had to first compete in a few qualifying rounds.
“Once I did that, I not only realized it was a job I wanted, but I earned enough scholarship money to wipe out my student loans,” she said.
Since June 8 of last year, Kelly has been on the road, representing Iowa constantly, including participating in the Miss America contest last September.
“What people don’t realize is that the Miss America organization has given out $45 million in scholarships,” she said, adding she has stayed in touch with many of the other girls in the pageant.
“We’re the only people out here doing anything remotely like this,” she said, adding the contestants are a unique group of “very put together, motivated young ladies.”
Kelly said in spreading her platform of “overcoming disabilities,” she spends “many good times with Rotary and Kiwanis clubs.”
She said winning the Miss Iowa title has opened a whole new world for her.
“Walking into it, I had this idea of what the stereotype of a pageant girl was. It has been enlightening for me to realize what other stereotypes are put on me,” she said.
“Stereotypes are nothing more than skin deep. I know the reason I won had nothing to do with the fact I looked different. I won because I competed. And in doing that, I learned that was my message,” she said.
She added the last 12 months have been “an amazing year of growth.”
“I keep saying at some point I will be able to slow down and process it all. But it just keeps coming at me,” she said.
She has learned much about being open to different types of people in a variety of situations, and she is astounded by the number of people who have reached out to her.
“It makes all the hours in the car worth it,” she said.
Kelly said she loves visiting with children, who ask her questions like whether or not she is a real princess and how she lost her hand. (Her favorite guess: a shark bit it off.)
“As I travel and speak and share, I try to focus on the idea of changing stereotypes … Most of the kids I meet with have seen the film Finding Nemo. I tell them this is my lucky fin,” she said, holding up her left arm.
Kelly said although her biggest challenge right now is accepting the fact her time is not her own, she realizes what an honor it is to be chosen for the post of Miss Iowa.
“It’s strange to be in a world where I sign autographs and take pictures with people. But I know my life is a bubble and it’s going to pop in a few short months,” she said.
As for the future, she’s not quite sure.
She hopes to continue her public speaking career and has signed with an agency to help book some engagements.
“There is this really cool market of speaking at colleges … I hope to continue sharing my message, with or without the crown,” she said.