December 11, 2013


If someone had told the 22-year-old version of Nicole Kelly that she would soon be seriously addressing a group of high school students while wearing a princess crown, she would have laughed.

A little more than nine months after winning the first beauty pageant she ever entered, Kelly used the stump of her left arm to hold back her blond hair as she pointed the fingers on her right hand to show the students in Coon Rapids how she pinned her Miss Iowa crown on to keep it from falling off.

"It takes some of the magic out of it," she said, earning a quick laugh from the assembled crowd.

Kelly spent Friday in the Coon Rapids-Bayard district, speaking to elementary and high school students to deliver a message of empowerment and breaking stereotypes through individual stories.

"It's about realizing your story has power. I didn't think my story was anything exciting until I stepped into this world," she said. "Now my everyday job is to talk about looking different and being different and how that's OK."

When Kelly was born with one arm, her parents made it clear that she would have no excuse to be anything other than herself, she said. She never let her disability hold her back, spending her youth playing softball, soccer, swimming, dancing and competing on the diving team and show choir.

"I know I'm OK, I can do absolutely everything," she said.

Nevertheless, she had to learn the "social graces" of having one hand - how to talk about it and joke about it so others would feel comfortable. There is a three-step process whenever she meets someone: first she addresses the elephant in the room by talking about her arm, then the other individuals feel comfortable enough with her to ask her questions, then they forget that she is any different from themselves.

"It was never about me, but about the perception of people meeting me that was the problem," she said. "That's what I understood I needed to change."

A native of Keokuk, Kelly said she was "lucky" to have grown up in a small town where it was easy for everyone to get to know her. All of her classmates went through those three steps, so she was never bullied or hailed for being different.

The same could not be said of the pageant world.

"Right away I was national and international news, and I didn't like it at all," she said.

Kelly explained that she would have loved to do interviews on her platform and goals, but she quickly discovered that people didn't want to hear her message - they just wanted to talk about her arm.

"The word inspiration gets tacked onto me a lot without my choosing, and it's something I've learned to be OK with," she said. "For a long time, no, because I don't see myself as any different, and I know and understand I'm fully capable, so for me, it's no big deal."

Kelly realized that she was living two opposing stereotypes - that of a beauty queen and that of a disabled individual.

"Stereotypes exist for a reason, often because part of them happens to be real," she explained to the students. "But we can be more. Putting those stereotypes together makes me, me. You have the power to step out of the stereotype you think you are."

The second piece of her message to the students centered on cultivating passions.

Kelly graduated from the University in Nebraska in 2012 with a degree in directing and theater management. A small-town girl from the Iowa heartland, she dreamed of working the stage in the big city - and she made it happen. She worked two internships in Chicago and New York City before landing a job working backstage with the actors at a theater right off Times Square in New York.

"I surrounded myself with people who told me my dream was OK," she said to the students. "At your age, you have to start investing in things that matter. You have to start to believe now, no matter how ridiculous and crazy it sounds, that your dream is something you can achieve."

But it's also important to stay open to new possibilities, and at least consider each before rejecting any. Some opportunities are once-in-a-lifetime, she said. For Kelly, the Miss Iowa pageant fit that category.

Living in New York, a friend encouraged her to get involved in a local pageant. Kelly heard the word "scholarships," and she was sold.

She Googled former Miss Iowas and contacted them on Facebook before her first pageant, meeting with Pauli Mayfield, Miss Iowa 2010, once before she entered her first contest. The day she won the Miss Iowa crown, a board of 12 people, including a personal trainer, a voice coach and an interview coach descended to manage both her and her time.

"I had 12 most important things to do each day," she recalled with a laugh. "It's a really fascinating world."

Kelly said that she essentially went back to school for the pageant, researching current events in order to stay up to date and have an opinion on any issue, from health care to Miley Cyrus' twerking.

Though she did name her cat Gracie Lu Freebush, Kelly said the movie "Miss Congeniality" isn't very representative of what happens behind the scenes. She joked that earrings were required to be the size of her hands, and heels under 5 inches tall weren't acceptable, but said that the contestants themselves were often strong, well-educated, self-motivated and independent - adjectives typically used to describe feminist women.

A fan of pickles and cheesecake, not at the same time, of course, Kelly said that she was encouraged to eat as much as she wanted throughout the pageant. The interview portion was her favorite part because it was during that time she could sway people.

"You can wear a pretty dress all day, but what does that say about you?" she asked.

She carried her empowerment message forward through her talent section, performing the song "Brave" by Sara Bareilles.

"You be brave. Your story starts now," she told the Coon Rapids-Bayard students. "Who are you empowering?"