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Born without her left forearm, Nicole Kelly has been overcoming disability her entire life, be it playing baseball, dancing or diving.
Now representing Iowa in the Miss America pageant, Kelly hopes to win the crown and inspire others to overcome their own difficulties. She chooses to focus on what she has rather than what she lacks.
"The reason I'm here is not because I'm a public interest story," she told The Associated Press in an interview Monday, in between rehearsals for three nights of preliminary competition that starts Tuesday. "I'm here not because I look different but because I have the intelligence, I have the ability and all the things that Miss America needs to have.
"I'm proud to represent those who look differently, but it's about what you can do and how you celebrate it," she said. "I'm just like you."
She said she developed an outgoing personality "that would not give in to 'no'" as a way to deal with the stares she often got.
The 23-year-old resident of Keokuk, Iowa, a Mississippi River town, said she never let her disability stop her from doing what she wanted. She played baseball, swam and dove, danced.
"I just did it," she said. "There never was an issue. No excuses, nor should there have been."
Kelly said people she met while growing up generally went through three phases: the first was when she approached them, because they were too intimidated to approach her. The second was when they grew comfortable enough to ask her questions like, "How do you do your hair?" or "How do you tie your shoes?"
The third phase "was when they completely forgot about it" and just saw her as Nikki, not a person with a disability.
She entered her first pageant this January, fell in love with the competition and won, advancing through the ranks to win the Miss Iowa crown. She was soon inundated with media attention, not all of it welcome.
She said one TV station surreptitiously shot close-ups of her partial arm without her realizing it and made that a central part of their report.
"I got a lot of unwanted attention, but there's also the flip side of this enormous platform" to bring attention to people with disabilities.
Since graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Kelly has landed internships in theaters in Santa Fe, N.M.; Chicago and New York. That led to a paid job as the guardian for child actors in the Broadway play "The Assembled Parties."
Kelly is scheduled to sing during the talent portion of the competition. She hopes to work in theater management — after winning the Miss America pageant.
"It would definitely be cool to win the crown, but I want the job: I want to be in a new city every second day, I want to log 20,000 miles on airplanes and meet new people all the time."
She would not be the first Miss America with a disability. In 1995, Miss Alabama, Heather Whitestone won the crown with a hearing impairment.
The 2014 Miss America will be crowned Sunday night in Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall, as the pageant returns home after a six-year stint in Las Vegas.