Windsor native Kelley Johnson could be the next Miss USA, and she wants to use her platform to advocate for her nursing profession | MyWindsorNow.com

Windsor native Kelley Johnson could be the next Miss USA, and she wants to use her platform to advocate for her nursing profession

Tommy Wood
twood@greeleytribune.com

Kelley Johnson

With Kelley Johnson, the conversation almost always turns to the monologue. On Sept. 13, 2015, Johnson, Miss Colorado at the time, took the stage for the talent portion of the Miss America competition. Instead of singing or dancing or ventriloquism, she appeared in her nursing scrubs with a stethoscope and gave a thoughtful, nuanced talk about her career inspired by an Alzheimer's patient she worked with.

The monologue blew up — it's amassed more than 6.6 million views on YouTube — and caught on with shows like "The View," whose hosts stirred controversy and lost advertisers by mocking Johnson, and "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," which had Johnson as a guest. Johnson, a Windsor native, ended up finishing third in the pageant.

"It jumpstarted my career in a different light," Johnson said of her monologue.

It helped Johnson launch a career as a public speaker and advocate for her profession. And after giving more than 75 speeches at nursing conferences and nursing school commencement ceremonies since Miss America ended, Johnson still wants to use the platform pageantry gave her. That's why she's competing in the 2018 Miss USA pageant, which began Friday in Shreveport, La.

"I had a feeling like I wasn't done," she said. "I just wanted to continue to use the microphone pageantry gave me."

Winning the competition would give Johnson speaking engagements all across the country and let her visit hospitals and get sponsorships she would use to talk about nursing.

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Johnson wanted to be a nurse since she was a little kid. Her dad died of colon cancer when she was just 4, but she remembers the dignity and professionalism with which his nurses treated him. She graduated from Fossil Ridge High School in 2010, then attended nursing school at Colorado Mesa University and Grand View University in Iowa, where she was the valedictorian of her class.

But the student debt from nursing school was onerous, so Johnson turned to pageantry for the scholarships. Despite her lack of experience, she won Miss Colorado. Then came Miss America, where she decided to give her nursing monologue during the talent competition because she was passionate about it but also because, well, it was her talent. The aftermath was a whirlwind of TV appearances and pubic exposure — "What is my life right now?" is what she described thinking at the time — and her third-place finish provided her with a scholarship that wiped out her student debt.

Afterward, she moved to California — she's competing in Miss USA as Miss California USA — and started traveling for her speaking gigs. Johnson started pursuing her doctoral degree in nursing from the University of Colorado Denver's online school, which has racked up the student debt again. In fact, Johnson thinks massive student debt is one of the toughest issues her generation faces, and she'll say as much if she's asked about it during the interview portion of the competition. Johnson said pageant contestants can be asked literally anything, from their favorite kitchen utensil to their opinion of the U.S. violating its nuclear deal with Iran.

Johnson's mom, Julie, and stepdad, Gene, will be at Miss USA for every second of the competition. They've never missed one of her pageants, and Johnson said they keep her grounded and remind her the eyes of the world, from her grandma to little girls, are on her. ("I hope this makes it into the story," she said when she started praising them.)

And Johnson hopes little kids who watch her are not only inspired to get into nursing but see a positive female role model. She wants them to know she's not perfect, she was bullied as a kid and doesn't diet or starve herself for the sake of pageants. She can balance her career with pageantry. She's a healthy, empowered woman.

"I have a great life and a great career," she said. "Pageantry is not going to create a life for me. That does not define me."

— Tommy Wood covers education and Evans city government for The Tribune. You can reach him at (970) 392-4470, twood@greeleytribune.com or on Twitter @woodstein72.

What’s the difference between Miss America and Miss USA?

The two pageants have much in common, but they’re separate entities. Each starts at a state level — for example, there are competitions for Miss Colorado that feed into Miss America and Miss Colorado USA that feed into Miss USA — before the national pageant. Miss America contestants are judged on a talent, like Johnson’s monologue, but Miss USA participants aren’t. And Miss America provides scholarships to finalists, whereas Miss USA winners can use their winnings however they want.